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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Tell Old Pharoah
by Donald Levit

For at least the present moment any version of The Square must remain “unfinished,” including in its World Documentary Audience Award work-in-progress state at Sundance and Toronto and in its U.S. première selection for the 2013 New York Film Festival three weeks prior to commercial release.

In the vein of other non-fictions also “open” in that shot as events unfolded without having reached a settled resolution, and personally dangerous like Guzmán’s benchmark The Battle of Chile, Burma VJ and other embedded considerations of conflict, Jehane Noujaim’s fifth documentary feature continues her crusade to bring the real, i.e., non-mainstream media, Arab world to outside eyes and minds.

This hundred-four-minute recording of happenings in, around or overlooking Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was not originally planned as such. At a press-and-industry face-to-face alongside also Egyptian-American producer Karim Amer, the director and activist indicated that, on one of her frequent trips to her diplomat parents’ home, she had come into contact with the film’s half-dozen central figures. Things snowballed over three years, a dictatorship crumbled after three decades, hope sprang only to be stifled by new military and political oppression and then regrouped but to encounter religious fanaticism. The story cannot yet have what she called a “culmination,” for details of abuses and atrocities continue to seep out of Pharaoh’s Land. But herein are pictures of individual sacrifice, of personal or small-group involvement as the building blocks on which popular mass solidarity may be built.

In addition to the crew’s daring, even risky, work and some TV news and CNN, social media supplies smart-phone recordings, videos, YouTube posts. Only at the very end, it was revealed, was there a true set piece in response to questions put by the filmmaker, in the case of Ahmed Hassan, by then recovered from being wounded when in disgust he had taken to physical action against the troops.

Otherwise, all is spontaneous, in subtitled Arabic or at times perfectly understandable British-inflected English. British-Egyptian Khalid Abdalla’s is the only possibly recognizable face, that of narrator-writer Amir of The Kite Runner, but one wishes that not so much screen time were devoted to computer contact with his United Kingdom-exiled doctor-activist father. As with others, and with several of the central subjects here, during “Occupy” Tahrir Abdalla meets and grows close to someone from virtually another world. This family man Muslim Brotherhood security enforcer, Madgy Ashour, eventually comes to question that organization’s rationalized realpolitik treachery and power grab.

These three are constant, their rôles effectively larger than that of, say, folk singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, risen to fame as the bard of resistance, detained and tortured but escaped to sing again. Others who appear earlier on recede from view, to assume different, less visible organizational functions or be forced vilified into obscure silence by state pressure.

It is her and our good luck that Noujaim happened to be on the spot, on familiar home turf, and to her credit in so well taking advantage. Why, one wonders, have other popular movements not found similar treatment in this age of immediate digital everything dissemination? Someone has to be the pioneer, the first whom others may follow. Indeed, The Square itself is not finished, either.

(Released by Participant Media; not rated by MPAA.)

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