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The Square

006 / 28 January 2014

Newly released and critically acclaimed documentary The Square (2013) – directed by Jehane Noujaim and produced in association with Noujaim Films, Roast Beef Productions and Worldview Entertainment – presents an account of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, which began in January 2011. It is a documentary with a narrative that focuses on three very different Egyptian activists:  Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for twenty five years; Khalid Abdalla, a well­-known British-Egyptian actor whose father and grandfather had previously been jailed in Egypt for political reasons; and Ahmed Hassan, a charismatic, young political activist and artist who takes the film's leading role.



The film has won numerous awards in 2013, including the People's Choice Awards at both the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and the Muhr Arab Documentary Award for Best Film at the Dubai International Film Festival. Following its release in the UK this month, The Square has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, the first ever Oscar nomination for an Egyptian film.


Though the The Square has been described by many as an 'immensely moving emotional journey',[1] some critics have deemed it as a romanticized oversimplification of a complex, ongoing political process.[2] One might argue that whilst the creative decision to focus on the stories of three main characters allows the viewer a somewhat first-hand, personal perspective, it also adds to the melodrama of the narrative, with an element of emotional excess and sensationalism.


A panel discussion hosted by BoomGen Studios co-founder Reza Aslan, the film's director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer  as well as cast members Ahmed Hassan and Ragia Omran – discussed the reasoning behind this documentary's specific style and how they believe it has led to the film's success. Noujaim began the discussion by explaining the main motivation behind the creation of the The Square. The intention was to keep Egypt and its political development within the international narrative, and 'to channel the world's attention.' Noujaim stressed how important it was to 'make people realize that no matter how far the square is from where they live, violation against human rights affect us all.'


Noujaim is known for work that attempts to make unfathomable events and political complexities more accessible and personal. This can be seen in Shayfeen.com (2007), about an initiative started by three Egyptian women with the aim to bring political reform to Egypt, and Rafea: Sola Mama (2012), in which a Bedouin woman struggles against tradition and society to become Jordan's first solar engineer. Rafea: Sola Mama won the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at DOC NYC and the Global Justice Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.


There are limitations to this type of narrative. A recurring point raised by members of the audience during the discussion was the film's omission of important events and themes that had been well-documented in western media. These included the lack of female perspective and the issue of increased sexual violence and the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, specifically the killing of hundreds of supporters on 14 May 2013, also known as the Rabaa massacre.


However, Karim Amer emphasized the fact that the film is not designed to be an exhaustive account of Egypt's political situation. He explained: 'This is not going to be the seminal film on the Egyptian revolution. I don't think that anybody can do that or claim that. This is a film that is taking three characters from the perspective of their journey in Tahrir square.' The contrasts between the characters – an Islamist, an expatriate and a passionate and frustrated youth – also serve to illustrate the diversity among the masses that flooded Tahrir Square in 2011, and makes their evident kinship all the more resonant. On the challenges of centring a film on key characters, Amer stated: 'if your character isn't involved in the action, it's very difficult to cover that… we can't just put a news clip update in the middle of this film, it totally takes you outside the journey of the characters.'


The focus on the stories of three central characters also enabled a certain differentiation from the news documented and disseminated by the media, which many protestors perceived to be corrupt and incorrect. In response to this, the film documents the establishment of Mosireen,[3] a not-for-profit media activism group that was co-founded by Khalid Abdalla to create a counter-narrative to the state-run or influenced media outlets that he believed to be publishing false information for political purposes. In this context, the character-driven narrative compliments this theme - the urgent need to open up and give a voice to the people.


In the discussion's closing, the subject of a popular Egyptian narrative and perspective remained central to thinking about Egypt's past and future. The leading character, Ahmed Hassan, said that making the documentary made him realize the importance of creating an Egyptian narrative that strengthens the people's position. Hassan noted: 'The fact that we recorded the revolution and we have documents of it – it's going to change the future generation.'


The Square was released online at Netflix on 17 January and will be showing in select UK theatres. Check the website for more details: www.thesquarefilm.com


Listen to the whole discussion online at BoomGen Studios: http://boomgenstudios.com/squareconferencecall





[1] Ann Hornaday, '"The Square" movie review: An exhilarating portrait of Egyptian politics', The Washington Post, 16 January 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/the-square-movie-review-an-exhilarating-portrait-of-egyptian-politics/2014/01/15/692ff142-7d49-11e3-93c1-0e888170b723_story.html

[2] For example see: Evan Hill, 'The Egypt outside '"The Square"', Al Jazeera America, 16 January 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/1/oscars-film-abouttahrirsquarenominatedforbestdocumentary0.html#featureArticle-chapter--2

[3] For more information see: mosireen.org