Documenting Egypt’s Revolution: Al-Midan (The Square) Reviewed

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Jehane Noujaim’s recent film, Al-Midan (translation: The Square), follows a group of Egyptian activists—many who are filmmakers and photographers themselves— involved in their nation’s ever-changing revolution(s) over the past couple of years. The film is beautifully shot, as Noujaim both follows the activists’ lives and has them describe their hopes for freedom and change as they move in and out of Tahrir Square. The film, which was picked up for release by Netflix, has been nominated in the “best documentary” category at this year’s Academy Awards.

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In Amanda Roberts’ review of the film at Muftah, she walks readers through Egypt’s changing political context in relationship to the film:

“In Egypt, politics these days – indeed, since the January 25th revolution – feels like Groundhog’s Day.  The Egyptian state has swung from authoritarianism to military dictatorship to civilian government and back to military dictatorship.  Each of these systems has proved problematic; and none of them have enjoyed substantial support from the population. The legitimacy of Egypt’s current government remains, much like the shifting symbolism in Tahrir, intensely contested. Like Egyptian politics, The Square leaves viewers with a nagging feeling that the aftershocks of the revolution are certain to continue.”

Evan Hill takes a more extensive, critical look at the film over at AJAM, noting its omission of sectarian violence and removal of Brotherhood rule in favor of a more optimistic story of a country united in its hopes for change:

“But though Noujaim’s protagonists come from diverse backgrounds, it is… the innocent and self-righteous passion of young, mostly secular and often well-educated activists who saw themselves in a lonely battle with protest as their only weapon — that pervades “The Square.” Their worldview goes unchallenged, even when those activists support a military coup to overthrow the Brotherhood.”

What I found most compelling in al-Midan was its portrayal of the evolving beliefs of one of the film’s characters, Magdy (a middle-aged Muslim Brotherhood member).  Noujaim’s portrayal of the relationship between Magdy and Ahmed (a young revolutionary armed with his trusty Canon) is particularly striking. Despite their different approaches to religion, both are committed to the revolution. As Magdy questions his own beliefs and the evolving role of the Brotherhood over the course of the film, Ahmed refuses to abandon his friend—their commitment to building a better country, despite their different ideologies, warrants it.

While the film’s website highlights six main characters, of which two are women (a filmmaker and human rights attorney), most of the screen time is given to men. While the aforementioned relationship between Magdy and Ahmed by itself would have made for a fantastic film, I would have loved to hear more from Eygptian women about their hopes and dreams for their country and how their beliefs changed over the course of political changes that took place. (Back in 2011, we spoke with our very own Eman to learn more about the revolution from her perspective.) Are there differences between men and women and their beliefs of revolution? That would be another film altogether.

Noujaim is the only woman director to have a film nominated in this year’s Documentary category, as Tom Roston writes about at the POV blog. While women dominate in documentary filmmaking, the number of award-winning documentaries directed by women remains small:

“Look at the winners of the Best Documentary Oscar from the past 20 years. Only three were directed, or co-directed, by women. There are another two that were produced by women who also received Oscars (Eva Orner for Taxi to the Darkside, and Audrey Marrs for Inside Job). But five out of 20 is a pretty dispiriting record for an industry in which women appear to have an equal creative footing.”

I’m looking forward to continuing to follow al-Midan during the award season. The film’s innovative, nearly real-time look at how a country’s transformation is documented across generations+ideologies through film+photography+cell phones, along with the stories the film chose to portray (and those it chose to exclude) makes it a fascinating documentary. How do we portray real-world stories on film? How do these films go on to influence viewers’ understanding of political situation and context? These are the questions that’ll be on my mind as I watch this year’s Academy Awards.

Al-Midan can currently be seen on Netflix in the United States and Canada. The Academy Awards will air on Sunday March 2, 2014 in the United States.  


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