What We Learned in Tahrir

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Noujaim Films

Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square

That winter we all became activists. We walked around with vinegar and Coke cans and tissues in our bags to minimize the burn of tear gas when it came. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and watched as our numbers of followers soared overnight. We learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square (essential was a final top layer with pockets). Some of my friends grew their hair out in big afro-like curls that came to stand for “revolutionary.” Some abandoned expatriate lives in Europe and America to return home and be a part of the change. I imagined I would never forget the feeling of that first day—January 25, 2011—or the feverish eighteen days that followed, culminating with February 11, when Mubarak stepped down. I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, of those first few weeks, would carry the country for years.

As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated. Some who came home from abroad eventually left again. Others emigrated for the first time. Many who had come to think of themselves as activists, just as quickly decided they were not. What had brought us together in those first few weeks in Tahrir eventually tore us apart. The Square, which was recently shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in the documentary film category, tells this tumultuous story, starting with the eighteen-day uprising against Mubarak in 2011, and ending with the events of the summer of 2013: the ousting of another president, the dispersal of an Islamist sit-in that left hundreds dead. It captures the initial coming together in Tahrir, but also the divisions that followed.

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Noujaim Films

A nighttime confrontation near Tahrir in The Square

I’ve known Jehane, the director, for years. We went to primary school together and our families were close. Our lives, the Egypt we know, the people we know, have frequently overlapped. During her many months of filming, there were few occasions when I didn’t bump into her, or one of her characters, as we dodged what might have been real or rubber bullets, or groped our way forward when the tear-gas became too much. In the winter of 2011, I saw her in and out of Tahrir; that spring, trailing Bothaina Kamel, who would become the only female presidential candidate; and then months later, across the river by a Coptic Church that had been attacked by Islamists and from which gunfire sounded out. When I would go to the apartment of Pierre Sioufi, which overlooks the square and served as a refuge for protesters and camera crews, Noujaim was often there. Whenever I saw her, she was in a hurry, running toward the clashes, away from the clashes, always following one or more of her protagonists.

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Noujaim Films

Ahmed Hassan in The Square

This is an approach Noujaim has successfully used in the past: trailing a small group of charismatic characters, letting the viewer eavesdrop on their days and interactions and conversations. The 104-minute film opens with Ahmed Hassan, a man in his mid-twenties from a working-class background, something of a hustler, with high ideals and an acute sense of justice. The camera accompanies him as he walks down the middle of a main street in downtown Cairo, minutes from the square. The city is deserted; it seems to be early morning, perhaps dawn; a single car passes by. Ahmed faces the camera and begins to narrate:

Let me tell you how this whole story began. Egypt was living without dignity. Injustice existed everywhere. Before the revolution I lived from one job to the next. I started working when I was eight years old.
[Cut to: a young boy on the street, possibly eight.]
In fifth grade I used to pay my school tuition by selling lemons in the streets. There was no hope for a better future in this country.

He goes on. Frequently in the film, Noujaim uses this kind of camera-conscious narration to carry the story forward. Ahmed persuasively captures the woes of his generation—the 60 percent of the population under the age of twenty-five from working class backgrounds who increasingly define Egypt today—but he appears to be constantly performing, and one wonders if the film might have been more powerful if it had merely watched him and listened in, as it does with others, weaving disparate lives and moments together more discursively, in a rawer form of cinéma vérité.

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Noujaim Films

Aida El Kashef in The Square

The five other main characters, who span in age from early twenties to mid-forties, are all activists who have other careers. There is Aida El Kashef, a young filmmaker with striking pink-framed glasses and an endearing idealism and sensitivity; Khaled Abdalla, a poised English-Egyptian actor best-known for his role in The Kite Runner, who comes from a family with a long history of political engagement; Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who spent much of his adult life in and out of Mubarak’s jails, where he was tortured by state security agents; Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer; and Ramy Essam, the singer who was dubbed the “voice” of the revolution for his hit song “Sawt El Horreya” (The Sound of Freedom), which he sang in the square. Interesting and in many ways unlikely bonds form among these young Egyptians, and among the many others whose lives intersect with theirs in and around Tahrir. There are tense confrontations, moments of dispute, as competing motivations bring people to the streets to challenge long-standing structures of power.


What happens when the young activists take to the square in a stand against the military, but the Brotherhood’s leaders have ordered its members not take part? What will Magdy do and how will his liberal activist friends react? (In this instance, he ultimately takes to the square, explaining that he is acting not as a Muslim Brotherhood member but as an individual Egyptian citizen who is convinced it is the right thing to do.) What will Magdy do when his son joins Morsi supporters in their attack on young activists such as Khaled? How do they overcome the fundamental differences between them, as the political divide widens, pitting activists against each other, and then the Brotherhood against the rest? What happens two years on,when Magdy (now at odds with the young activists he once identified with)—joins the thousands of Islamist supporters who are eventually dispersed by police, leaving hundreds dead?

How do they keep together, this group fighting for freedom in a country being torn apart?

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Noujaim Films

Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour (left) and actor Khalid Abdalla in The Square

The collaborative process of filming The Square, of gathering footage from her main characters and from other activists and citizens journalists, captured not only the spirit that made Tahrir what it was during an idyllic eighteen days and for months later; it also left the crew with 1,600 hours of footage from which to cull—an unparalleled, and inevitably unwieldy, record of the uprising. For those of us who lived through it, many scenes in The Square are familiar. There are the images of protesters marching through streets, filling the square, singing, sharing food: moments we thought would never end. There are the clashes, more and more of them as the film goes on, that gradually became everyday occurrences in our lives; the confrontations with riot police and the efforts to evade teargas; the stand-offs with the military. There is footage from the massacre outside the State TV building in October 2011 when Coptic Christians were beaten and shot at and trampled by thugs and agents of the state—an event still clouded by unanswered questions. There are images from the morgue that we Egyptians have become inured to; and the now infamous and haunting pictures and video of dead bodies being dragged and dumped on a corner at the edge of Tahrir Square on a November past—we all saw them the morning they were taken and for a moment refused to believe that they were real (“Could it be Photoshopped?” friends of mine had asked).

The choice of footage in the final cut was meticulous; intended not to offer a nuanced or comprehensive portrait of a political situation, but rather to trace how the thinking of a select group of young activists evolved as events played out. (The original cut, which was shown at Sundance in early 2013, had to be updated with a new ending to take account of the violent summer of 2013.) Some of the best parts of the film involve Abdalla and his family, relations that seem to capture the generational divide that so defined the uprising. These moments suggest a more complex reality than the film generally depicts— the split between young, educated, English-speaking activists, and a larger portion of the population with very different backgrounds and daily concerns. In one of several scenes showing Abdalla Skyping with his father, a physician and political exile who has lived in London for years, he laments the lies of the state media:

“What are you going to do, start a television station?” his father says.
“Yes, hopefully I will,” Abdalla replies.
“So that they can come and destroy it for you?” his father responds, muttering of the need to establish it in the free media zone of Cyprus. “So you’ll need massive amounts of money. Yours. Because your people are poor. And who is this democracy and freedom for at the end of the day? The poor and underprivileged. The rich don’t want freedom. They’re already free.”

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Noujaim Films


Khalid Abdalla (center) with other activists in The Square

And here is Abdalla in conversation with the well-known critic and writer Mona Anis, a lifelong family friend, as she peels cucumbers in her downtown apartment:

I lived [through] the IRA demonstrations in England in the 1970s when people were electrocuted and beaten and had their arms twisted and fingers stuck in these machines,” Mona says.
“So what, I’m just supposed to accept?” Abdalla says.
“No, you’re not supposed to accept, but you’re supposed to weigh in things,”
“I am weighing in things.”
“You seem to take a few things for granted,” Mona says. “This is why we want to get rid of them as soon as possible. And to say that people are not ready to vote is just very condescending.”

These moments, short, fleeting, possibly overlooked in the larger story of the film, are the crux of many of the struggles we have faced and still face today; a minority of exceedingly righteous idealists, somewhat privileged, fighting a growing majority who increasingly opt for stability over the more ambitious political goals to which the revolution first aspired. As narrator, Ahmed says towards the end of the film, “We need to create a society of consciousness, and out of that a good leader will emerge.” That is the idealist view. Millions of Egyptians, at this very moment, seem to want a leader who is already known, an experienced military man, rather than one arising from the revolution in which Ahmed was immersed.

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Noujaim Films

A confrontation at the edge of Tahrir in The Square

In The Square, Noujaim is evidently on the side of the young revolutionaries, this particular small and privileged group of them, but this seems incidental to the film’s value. I find myself hoping that one day a film will be made about the youth who were at the front lines doing the fighting, and dying—those without voices, without names, without cameras and smartphones and media attention. And yet, in the end, what happened at Tahrir shifted something fundamental in Egyptians, regardless of their backgrounds or where they ultimately now stand. The Square is all about that shift; it’s about a barrier of fear being broken, about persistence, about the search for what we want and what we believe and who in the end we are. We still don’t quite know yet, but the painful knowledge we’ve acquired over the past two-and-a-half years has shown us more than ever how important it is to find those answers.

Jehane Noujaim’s film The Square will be showing in selected theaters in the United States beginning January 17.

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