CAIRO — There’s a lot anyone can learn from Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square,” an examination of the 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
But Egyptians may be least able to benefit from its lessons. So far, the film has not been approved for screening here.
On the third anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster, which falls on Tuesday (Feb. 11), Egypt is more polarized than ever, largely between those who are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support the military. The film is a reminder of what Egyptians share, regardless of religious or political beliefs.
“The Square” depicts the uprising through the eyes of six revolutionaries who lived in Tahrir Square during those historic weeks and follows them as Egyptians struggled to redefine themselves. Mubarak’s ouster ushered in a tumultuous period that saw clashes with the military, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the return to the streets to demand the deposal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi, and the sit-ins that followed Morsi’s overthrow by the army.
The film, available to American audiences on Netflix and in theaters, ends with the clearing of the Morsi supporters’ encampment, which resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths. Since then, the Brotherhood has been outlawed and people have been arrested for simply possessing Brotherhood materials, now a crime.
Noujaim, 39, is an accomplished documentarian and TED Prize winner whose credits include “Startup.com” and “Control Room,” a film about the Al-Jazeera network. “The Square,” though, is not a film that intends to accurately and journalistically represent all factions. Noujaim, an Egyptian-American who spent much of her childhood in Egypt, lived on Tahrir Square with her characters during the revolution. In many ways, she is one of them, and “The Square” is her contribution to the revolution.
The film depicts those historic events from the revolutionary’s point of view. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the square; Noujaim chose to follow the ones she was intrigued by, trusting that viewers would do the same.
Two of the most captivating characters are Ahmed Hassan, a young street revolutionary, and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a father of four who, under Mubarak, was imprisoned and tortured. Despite their differing backgrounds and perspectives, the two become fast friends, and the exchanges between them provide some of the film’s most compelling moments.
Through Ashour viewers get a nuanced view of the Brotherhood and its army of foot soldiers, a stark contrast to the heavy-handed, black-and-white demonization of them in Egyptian media of late. Ashour had been a loyal member of the Brotherhood for decades, attracted to its religiosity and benefiting from its financial support. After it seized power, he began to question some of its decisions, which left him conflicted.
When Morsi was first elected, many Egyptians opted for Muslim rule. But that feeling didn’t last long. Only 150 days into his presidency, Morsi made a power grab that gave him even more authority than Mubarak.
The revolutionaries were upset with his autocratic maneuvers and with the new constitution that the Islamist-dominated parliament drafted, which they considered a betrayal of the ideals they had fought for. Noujaim said she spoke to many ordinary Egyptians during that time — many of them practicing Muslims — who were “deeply disturbed” that the ruling party was now determining who constituted a good Muslim.
Ashour is visibly torn in the film between the revolutionaries, whose principles he, too, had stood for, and the Brotherhood. He found himself increasingly at odds with Hassan and his other friends from the square.
“If there were an alternative, I wouldn’t want Morsi,” he says at one point in the film. “We’re afraid that if Morsi falls we’ll be taken back to prisons,” Ashour said.
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes a short time later when British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla sits with Ashour and his son and shows them video of Muslim Brotherhood members attacking protesters outside the presidential palace, some of the very same people who had been in Tahrir with Ashour.
Ashour’s son had gone to the presidential palace that day, and was on the side of the Brotherhood throwing rocks at their opponents. Ashour looks mournful, and chastises his son for his actions: “You have to stand as an individual,” Ashour tells the boy. “You have to think for yourself.”
It is Ashour and his conflict that resonated most strongly with some of the film’s most conservative and religious audiences in the United States.
When Noujaim took the film to Sundance, some of the screenings were in downtown Salt Lake City and attended by Mormons and ex-Mormons. They, as well as evangelicals, came up to the filmmakers after showings and said that, despite initially thinking they had the least in common with Ashour, it was he whom they related to the most. They identified with his deep faith, his trust in the fledgling government, and his ultimate disillusionment. Those feelings transcended culture and creed.
“We are all confused sometimes, and we question our beliefs,” Noujaim said.
Once Morsi was overthrown and the Brotherhood was again the victim of state oppression, that changed.
“Once they were persecuted, Ashour was immediately back on their side,” she said.
His rueful words all those months ago now seem prescient. Authorities recently raided his house, and he is reportedly in hiding.
Noujaim said she is not one of those filmmakers who believes her work can change the world. Perhaps, though, it can make a difference in what’s happening in Egypt today. Noujaim, who is currently in the U.S., hopes to be able to bring the movie to Egypt.
But “The Square” has already thawed some icy relations in the places it’s been shown. Noujaim said she spoke to an Egyptian woman in the United States who had seen “The Square” on Netflix, and decided to bring her family to a screening.
Like many other Egyptian families, they were so divided over events that relatives weren’t talking to one another. Seeing the film together enabled them to find enough understanding for one another’s viewpoints to enable them to begin to communicate once again, the woman told Noujaim.
And therein lies perhaps the most salient lesson of the film, particularly for Egyptians.
“We are all human beings,” Noujaim said. “Reminding ourselves of our humanity is a very simple idea, but I think it couldn’t be more important right now.”
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