Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's stirring cinematic saga "The Square" is simply one of the greatest documentaries chronicling revolution as it happens that's ever been made.
Co-executive produced by CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans, "The Square" -- which has won awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, and is nominated for the International Documentary Association's award in the Best Feature category -- is simply required viewing for those who like their politics and films to lean left.
"The Square" documents Egypt's ongoing revolts from 2011-2013 with thrilling camerawork that provides on-the-ground views of protests and street fighting and rises with soaring, sweeping cinematography that reveals mass uprisings at Tahrir Square.
Eye popping, awe inspiring aerial photography of the masses surging in Cairo's streets visualizes what Dr. Hassam Abdalla, the exiled, anti-regime activist father of actor Khalid Abdalla, calls "one of the great revolutions of mankind."
The cameras graphically show the scene a female news presenter with a British accent calls, with justification, the "largest demonstration in the history of the world," as the Egyptian people once again take to the streets, to overthrow Pres. Mohamed Morsi.
Noujaim's doc recalls the mass hero of Bolshevik fiction classics shot to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, such as Sergei Eisenstein's "Ten Days That Shook the World"/"October."
"The Square's" camera with its bird's eye view recalls Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov's cinematography from on high as the multitude march in Havana's street during the funeral procession of a student martyr in the 1964 epic "I Am Cuba." "The Square" also has the immediacy and urgency of the 2008 Oscar-nominated Danish documentary "Burma VJ."
But what makes "The Square" especially compelling is how the skillful Noujaim, who helmed 2004's award winning "Control Room," individualizes the vast throngs with the stories of a half dozen or so revolutionaries. Their solo stories are integrated into the turbulent tableaux, much as Vsevolod Pudovkin did in his 1920s Soviet silent classics "Mother," "The End of St. Petersburg" and "Storm Over Asia," giving the films' heroes clearly defined faces. These real life rebels with a cause serve as perfect subjects to tell the tale of Tahrir amid the tumultuous backdrop of mass revolt.
The aforementioned Khalid Abdalla is one of the most recognizable Egyptian actors since Omar Sharif; audiences may be familiar with Abdalla from 2006's 9/11-themed "United 93," 2007's Afghan-set "The Kite Runner" and the 2010 Iraq War drama "Green Zone," co-starring Matt Damon. The 33 year old actor was born in Glasgow into a family of political dissidents, and as indicated above, Khalid's father is another figure in the documentary who observes through social media the upheaval in his native land, presumably from afar. The politically engaged actor actually leaves behind the relative safety of London to join the front lines of the uprising in his ancestral homeland.
Ragia Omran is a human rights attorney. Magdy Ashour is another interesting character, as this bearded proletarian 40-something father belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, and was tortured by the secret police for opposing Mubarak's regime. Magdy's allegiances to the Brotherhood and Tahrir revolutionaries leads this essentially good man to be divided within himself, especially over the role the Brotherhood plays during the course of the period covered in "The Square," when the Islamists are in -- and then out of -- power. At one point, at home with his working class family, Magdy broods "we've gained nothing from the revolution."
Aida El Kashef is a 20-something Cairo filmmaker who sets up the very first tent in Tahrir Square as the rebellion begins and chronicles the unfolding insurgency. She also co-founded what press notes calls an Egyptian "equivalent of Democracy Now." Her footage includes a chilling interview with another of "The Square's" protagonists, singer Ramy Essam, after the army brutally tortures him in the Egyptian Museum. A sort of Woody Guthrie of the Egyptian Revolution, the guitar-strumming Ramy writes and performs songs for the Tahrir throngs that become the soundtrack for the uprising and musical narration for the documentary.
Perhaps "The Square's" most intriguing character is the youthful Ahmed Hassan, whom the doc opens with. Ahmed comes across as an indefatigable, incorruptible revolutionary, the implacable, eternal enemy of military and religious dictatorship. Like a 21st century Jean-Paul Marat, who was the renowned "Friend of the People" during the French Revolution, the energetic Hassan seems to be everywhere, a street fighting man battling for the rights of man and ideals of the movement he helped spark.
A born rabble-rouser, the tireless Ahmed is prone to proclamations, such as "the revolution is coming despite everything!" Like a latter day Trotsky Ahmed inveighs against "the revolution betrayed" and seems to always be prepared to return to the barricades to fight for the Arab Spring's true principles. Ahmed is truly the film's source of youthful enthusiasm -- he is always, as Stokely Carmichael put it, "ready for revolution."
"The Square" covers an approximately two-year period that feels like a rollercoaster ride through a series of mass revolts, with the most critical role played by the armed forces and Muslim Brotherhood. What's missing from this otherwise great documentary, perhaps because it may be missing in Egypt itself, is a vanguard organization with the theoretical understanding of how to truly revolutionize Egyptian society. While there's much talk in the doc about "conscience," the consciousness of how to transform Egypt's economy so that it can serve the needs of ordinary people does not seem to be present.
To be sure, "The Square" is a love letter to heroic humanity striving to overthrow the shackles of oppression. But it also raises important philosophical questions. How does one externalize and institutionalize the spirit of mass revolt so that the will of the people is fully expressed and implemented? How can the masses truly take control of their lives and justly, democratically govern themselves?
The film makes one thing abundantly clear: Egyptians are to be commended for their fighting spirit. "The Square" leaves viewers feeling that even during the current period of military rule, we haven't heard the last from Ahmed and his comrades.
We had our occupy movement and worker revolts of late, but the revolutionary ardor of the Egyptians easily exceeds their Yankee counterparts. Watching this inspiring documentary is as close as many of us will get to an inside view of their revolution, and should not be missed.
Watch the trailer, via YouTube:
"The Square" is playing at the New York Film Forum and opens Nov. 1 in L.A. at the Sundance Theater and Monica 4.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.