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York Human Rights Film Festival Review: The Square

An award-winning documentary provides an eyewitness depiction of the Egyptian revolution. Rosemary Collins reviews

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Director: Jehane Noujaim
Running time: 108 minutes

The pro-democracy protests that erupted in Egypt's Tahrir Square in 2011 and ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak after thirty years in power were embraced worldwide as a triumph of the human spirit's struggle for freedom. But as forces including the military and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood struggled for power, watchers questioned if Mubarak's replacement was going to be any better - and if the revolutionaries were going to gain the rights they'd fought for. Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated documentary, showing this week as part of the University of York student-organised Human Rights Film Festival, provides on-the-ground coverage of the triumph and despair of the revolution.

The Square follows a handful of ordinary people who took to the streets to lead the protests - Ahmed, a resiliently optimistic working-class freedom fighter; Magdy, a Muslim Brotherhood member increasingly torn between his beliefs and his loyalties to his fellow protestors; and the incredibly charismatic and passionate Khalid Abdalla, an actor best known to Western audiences for starring in United 93 and The Kite Runner. Through their eyes, we see history being made, and follow the increasingly agonising dilemmas as they realise that, in the words of one interviewee, "Politics is not the same as a revolution." The very ramshackle free-spiritedness that made the protests democratic means they have no strategy following Mubarak's sudden resignation, and as different groups struggle to fill the vacuum, the protestors lament that they're no longer fighting the regime; they're fighting their own people.

Noujaim's collection of footage provides a precious recording of the revolution in process, and Tahrir Square is central to events. He captures it in all its different moods - flooded with ebullient protestors, surreally covered over with turf and flowers as the army try to restore the status quo after Mubarak's resignation, then full of a new crowd, now bowing in prayer as the Muslim Brotherhood become increasingly key players. He secures remarkably intimate footage from a variety of different perspectives, from the revolutionaries arguing about strategy in their flats to a general in his limousine justifying the decision to force the protestors to go home - if they were at the gates of Downing Street, he says, David Cameron would do the same. Occasionally this extreme close-up feels slightly claustrophobic - some sense of the wider context, both in Egypt and internationally, which sparked the protests would be welcome. But perhaps doing so would detract from The Square's power, as a remarkably moving depiction of the aching difficulty of making idealistic dreams reality.


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