Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-shortlisted The SQUARE: the need for conscience-- & leadership --in Eqypt

While it's hard to fault the Academy's choices for Best Documentary film this year (well, how Cutie and the Boxer beat out Stories We Tell is a bit of an embarrass-ment), I am sorry to see THE SQUARE -- from Jehane Noujaim, the filmmaker who earlier gave us and Control Room --left out of the final five. Although we've already seen two excellent documentaries that dealt with the so-called Arab spring in Egypt (which we dearly hope does not end up more like a nuclear winter) -- Uprising and Tahrir: Liberation Square, not to mention the so-so-to-crappy and generally uninformed media coverage that occurred at the time and after --- The Square proves to be the best and most inclusive of the lot.

This is because Ms. Noujaim, shown at left, manages to let us in to the real conflict that's going on here -- the dismal choice between, as one person puts it, the "killer" (a continuation of the Mubarek regime) and the "traitor" to the revolution (The Muslim Brotherhood). The film-maker does this by concen-trating mainly on three men and a few more peripheral women (well, this is Islamic territory, right) heavily involved in helping this revolution onwards. In one of the film's most shocking moments, the wife of one of these men (he's a member of The Muslim Brotherhood whose "faith" has begun to waver) says that she would not care if a Jew was running this country, so long as justice is finally provided.

The need for "justice" -- for Egypt to finally understand and accept that all its citizens are worthy of this gift -- comes up time and again during the documentary's 104-minute length. This is not sledge-hammered home by any means; it simply arises over and over via both the stupidity and horror of the Mubarek regime, the military who enabled this (along with the United States and other western powers), and the thuggish and fundamentalist-fueled Brotherhood who betrayed the revolutionary cause in order to be able to take power -- and then just as stupidly refused to share that power with the people.

The three important men we get to know here are Ahmed (above, center: a young fellow mostly seen organizing and then fighting on the front lines), Khalil (below: an actor born of Egyptian parents and rasied in England, it seems, who has now come back to Egypt to see this revolution through) and Magdy (two photos below: the married man with family who is best friends with Ahmed, even though the two disagree about the benefits of the Brotherhood).

Ms Noujaim begins with the first major uprising when the populace took to Tahrir Square (of the title) and then shows us the various points along the way, as time and again the people had to go back to that Square -- often at the cost of their health or life -- to make first the Mubarek regime, later the military and finally the Muslim Brotherhood understand that what was happening was NOT  the hoped-for revolution. As one woman points out: While plenty of the revolutionaries have gone on trial, none of the corrupt and terrorizing regime has yet been tried.

We also hear arguments that get to the core of the difference between a religious and a secular state -- and not the kind of secular rule that countenances constant surveillance and torture. As Ahmed tries to point out to Brotherhood members, "You don't need your religion to be written into the Constitution. Don't you know in your heart that you're Muslim?"

Like our own "Occupy" movements, these revolutionaries literally have no person to get behind, no leader to follow or help elect. (This may be wise in one regard, for that leader would probably soon find himself "disappeared.") Instead, they pride themselves on following a kind of "collective" conscience. Only trouble is -- this is why I do not foresee the Arab spring leading to Arab summer -- when you step up to that ballot box, just how do you vote for a "conscience"?

The Square -- a gift from the Netflix organization -- opened this past Friday around the country in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC (click here for theaters) and can concurrently be seen via Netflix streaming.

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