Hugo Massa offers a pointed reading of ‘The Square,’ Jehane Noujaim’s latest documentary attempt to tell the story of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution through some of its central actors.
Jehane Noujaim’s long awaited El Midan: The Square was on at NYC Film Forum and Los Angeles Sundance Theater until November 14th. While the film is on its way to a wider diffusion, including in its native country where the producers are waiting for censors’ approval, it has already received unanimous reviews, two awards including an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and yielded an Oscar-buzz after its first screenings. What is about to become a landmark documentary in the representation of the Egyptian uprising allows us to reflect upon the visual culture that has been surrounding the story of Tahrir Square, and how it translates into a feature film.
How is one to cinematographically tell the story of two years and a half of a relentless struggle when the scope of its representation – jointly in its citizen- and its network-based versions – by far surpasses what has ever been done in world history? Since the very first days of the unrest, the visual documentation of Tahrir Square has challenged Gill Scott Heron’s notorious line. Not only was the Egyptian revolution televised, it was also flickr-ed, twitted, and YouTubed. Yet, according to New York Times’ columnist A.O. Scott, The Square still constitutes a “revelation” thanks to the “immediacy of Ms. Noujaim’s approach, which often puts the viewer in the midst of chaos as it unfolds”. Quite the opposite, I would say: it is hard to consider this privileged on-the-ground position to constitute a revelation of any sort, precisely because we have been transported directly into the Egyptian mass demonstrations and confrontations by an endless and multi-vocal stream of media for years.
Rather, Noujaim’s strategy to engage her audience seems to hang on a deliberate spectacularization of the Egyptian struggle. If you have not seen the film, the trailer provides a few hints on what to expect. Among the artifice used, the most irritating is the constant dubbing of the world-famous bird’s eye view of cheering masses in Tahrir Square with muffled shivering thuds – a Hollywood-like trick that is unfortunately not specific to the trailer. And although it is true that the character-driven story does provide a counter-narrative to the incomprehensible human ensemble packaged in the square, it has also the side effect of leaving the power of mass demonstration aside. It is a clear manifestation of our need for contemporary Hollywood-like “heroes”, regardless of the horizontal leader-free and egalitarian principles that animated the protests, at least in their earlier versions.
But what was acclaimed as unprecedented access to the inside world of Tahrir Square also fails at presenting a more complex vision of its sociology. Ahmed, Khalid, Magdy, Aida and Ramy – as genuine and endearing they can be – are also as many faces of the same coin: that of the “good guys.” Although the figure of Magdy, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and a long-term Tahrir activist, highlights the rising divisions within the revolutionary group, the expanding political diversity of Egypt remains relentlessly reduced to a triangular fight between the army, the supporters of Mubarak’s regime (folool) and the “revolutionaries”. Noujaim seems concerned not to lose her foreign audience: the main examples being the fact that the subtitles get rid of the Salafis by reducing them to “other groups,” or that religious references and prayers are reserved to the sequence concerning the Muslim Brotherhood. The complexity of the Egyptian political society does not seem to be serving Noujaim’s narrative: that of a continuous fight of the good (the revolutionaries) against two “fascist” (sic) forces (the army and the Brotherhood). And the promise of a new take on the struggle is stillborn.
The Square’s new story could have been to propose a new time frame for the Egyptian revolution, as the chronology presented – from January 2011 to August 2013 – indeed breaks the cliché of an 18-day revolution. But this work also comes to us while events continue to unfold, complying with the norms of our hyper-reactive, impatient sense of time. The finite form of a feature-length documentary has the effect of freezing ongoing transitions in Egyptian society, of reducing a complex phenomenon to the traits the director saw or wanted to show. This mystification, à la Barthes, by which history is removed from its discourses and is naturalized in its representation, is not new. To compare it with an early example, in its time, Patricio Guzmán’s La Batalla de Chile (1975) came to embody the period leading to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government. Not only did it constituted an illuminating, although openly militant, record of the events, but it was also the product of an unprecedented and unique approach. Again, how are we to reinvent witnessing through filmmaking in a time of constant self-documentation?
To be fair, there is a fresh, unfortunately underestimated, perspective in The Square: the one that tells Khalid Abdalla’s engagement. This British-Egyptian actor has been among the protesters of Tahrir since 2011, but he is also a leading figure of the online activism part of the fight, notably one of the founding members of Mosireen, an influential media-activist group and Youtube channel. By showing us his strive for more citizen-based reporting of the confrontations, his editing session of raw footage, and his regular strategic videoconference discussions with his former dissident father, Noujaim reveals the backstage of media-activism and evokes the continuity of Egyptian political struggle. This is the real revelation of the film, which subtly breaks clichés and adds some complexity to the myth of spontaneity surrounding the act of revolution. Although this less documented face of the Egyptian revolution ironically echoes Noujaim’s previous film Control Room (2004), this should not lead to the conclusion that the filmmaker’s role in our over-documented age should only be to present a meta vision of the media. This rather confirms the idea that documentary filmmaking, as a praxis, should be a space of revelation and innovation aimed at awakening and not one of mere recollection or mystification of ongoing media representations.
Hugo Massa is a journalist and documentary filmmaker from Paris, France. His current webdoc project Ritmos Negros del Peru documents the preservation and re-invention of Afro-Peruvian music, instruments and rhythms. He is currently based in New York, where is is completing a documentary program at the New School.