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Keeping up with global news can often feel like tuning into a long running series you’ve never seen before. You’re able to pick out the key players and motivations but without the centuries of backstory, unseen characters and small intricacies it’s impossible to grasp the whole labyrinthian plot with any meaningful understanding. Even reading up on the facts can be a fruitless experience that presents the raw data but not the rounded social impact and human story of whatever conflict, uprising or revolution it concerns. This is why Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar nominated documentary is so successful.
Taking an incredibly focused approach, the Egyptian American filmmaker charts the course of the ongoing Egyptian revolution through three personal stories centred around the titular Tahrir Square – a Cairo landmark and hotbed of the vast national protest against decades of dictatorial rule by the government of Hosni Mubarak. As the nation stands united in opposition to its leader, the protesters face unbelievable brutality from the state, but with the strength of their convictions and an undying desire for democracy these ordinary people achieve something extraordinary and force Mubarak to retire from office. Following the young, charismatic and fiercely passionate revolutionary Ahmed, successful actor Khalid Abdalla and conflicted member of The Muslim Brotherhood, Magdy, on the front lines of the protests, the film paints a vivid, honest picture of what freedom means to these brave men and women – something they are willing to lay down their lives for. As with the core of the revolution the film is about the people of Egypt and their dissatisfaction with their treatment – its politics are kept to a minimum and Noujaim places her focus squarely on the hearts and minds of the social unrest. While obviously defiantly one-sided, it’s still a captivating – often shocking – piece of cinema that submerges us in the square, bringing life and context to the scenes of violence and elation in a way no news report ever could. Captured in intense handheld shots The Square encapsulates the ground level struggle, while elegantly setting this against staggering aerial shots of millions of protesters swarming the square and surrounding streets. It’s a fascinating study of the power of people, and a microcosm of a nation’s history. A revolution is not something that is simply ‘won’ and, as the hordes who marched on Tahrir Square find out, without clarity of message and unity of thought even when you’ve got democracy it doesn’t guarantee a candidate you believe in. As Mubarak falls he is replaced by ruthless military rule, and in their first democratic election the ballot paper shows two candidates, Mubarak’s new representative and Mohamed Morsi of the extreme Muslim Brotherhood who piggybacked on the nation’s protest to claim it for their own hardline religious ends. Freedom is an easy thing to demand, but what does the concept even mean? Only so much can be grasped from a brief news report or shaking YouTube footage – here is a film that will live forever as a document of what it meant to be part of this rebellion, to feel the sting of tear gas and the ecstasy of achieving your goals, but ultimately the pitfalls that await an unorganised, conflicted mass. There is no end to this story. The unrest rumbles on – bricks are thrown, bullets fly and blood continues to be shed.