‘The Square’: A Precarious Mixture of Art and Politics

“The Square” (Al Meedan)
Directed by Jehane Noujaim
Produced by Karim Amer/Noujaim Films, 2013
Running time, 1:44 minutes.

BY NADA RAMADAN ELNAHLA

After winning the 2013 Sundance Audience Award, director Jehane Noujaim created a Kickstarter project to fund the continued filming of her latest documentary, “The Square,” asking backers to help the film “reach the quality . . . and the release this revolution of modern times deserves.” The artistic vision behind the 103-minute film, combined with the turbulence of post-revolutionary Cairo, ensured that the $100,000 project goal was a success; 1413 backers contributed to it with a total of $126,020. In January, the 2014 Academy Awards nominations revealed that “The Square,” streamed by Netflix, has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature. This has created a state of frenzy in the media and Egyptian Facebook pages, leading to questions like “Who is Noujaim? Is this Egypt’s first Oscars nomination? What is the political message? Is the film really banned in Egypt?” To answer these questions, it helps to travel back in time and take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Noujaim and her documentary.

Today, international critics hail the Egyptian-American movie director and producer as having a finger on the pulse of the Egyptian revolution. Noujaim’s 2006 TED website talk (TED Ideas worth spreading) describes her as “the daughter of an American mother and an Egyptian-Lebanese-Syrian father” who, since moving to Boston in 1990, has worked in both the United States and the Middle East on various documentary projects. One of her more controversial projects (at least from an Egyptian point of view) is “Control Room,” a 2004 documentary examining the Qatar television news network, Al Jazeera, its coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and its airing of Osama Bin Laden’s tapes after September 11.  Currently, the network is under scrutiny in Egypt, although still popular with the supporters of the ousted President Morsi.

Noujaim’s documentary, “The Square,” filmed in and around Tahrir Square, chronicles the overthrow of a 30-year dictatorship in 2011, describing the military rule, and culminating with the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and its president in the summer of 2013.  The film’s strong tone of condemnation against the Egyptian military (which goes hand in hand with the West’s continued support of the Muslim Brotherhood regardless of their present violence), combined with the often politically-oriented character of Oscar nominations and awards, only strengthen the skepticism and mistrust of Egyptian audiences. To a non-Egyptian, on the other hand, “The Square,” offers an engaging, inspirational, and aesthetic work that follows the idealism, courage and sacrifice of a young generation of Egyptians struggling for freedom and democracy.

After the recent referendum on a new Egyptian constitution on January 14 and 15, 2014, many criticized this generation’s lack of interest and participation compared to that of older citizens (the majority of whom were women who supported the constitution both by voting and by dancing in the streets, challenging not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the traditional red lines of female propriety concerning the act of public dancing in broad daylight). In addition to members of the Islamic factions and parties – most of which boycotted the referendum – many other young Egyptians have either evinced disillusionment concerning the unfulfilled aspirations of the 25th January revolution, or have been alienated by the events of the last few years.

In answer to my query, one of the young Egyptian backers of Kickstarter fund for “The Square” expressed concern about the success of his chosen project, stating, “I wish I did not pay.. . . I want my money back . . . I was backing up the revolution but it is not worth it.” Thus, supporters and critics alike await the results of the Oscar nomination of “The Square,” amid conflicting feelings of pride, euphoria, mistrust, condemnation, despair and disillusionment.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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