Partway through the filming of The Square, a powerful, often harrowing documentary about Egypt’s chaotic years of revolution, Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim found what she thought was a natural endpoint for the movie.
History had other ideas.
“The initial stopping point was December, 2012, when we basically decided that this seems like a logical film – the ousting of one president to the election of the next one,” the 39-year-old director said in an interview during a stop in Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival.
She was referring to the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for three decades, and the election of Mohammed Morsi, the first freely elected president in the country’s history.
But in late 2012, it was becoming clear that Morsi himself was in danger of ouster. His decision to essentially issue a series of decrees giving himself unchecked powers resulted in another massive wave of protests. So Noujaim kept filming, and her documentary took on a different arc – from the ousting of one president to the ousting of the next.
“What became much more interesting is that the minute that the President started to trample on the ideals and the visions of the people that were out on the streets initially ... this became about a struggle for values and principles,” she said.
The final product of Noujaim’s work – and some 1,600 hours of footage – is a 100-minute documentary shot almost entirely from street level, full of up-close footage of the violent protests and bloody clashes that have come to define much of the visual history of the Egyptian revolution.
The film doesn’t shy from presenting gruesome images, including mangled corpses and the wounds of torture victims. In several scenes, the action comes to an abrupt stop as a camera operator is assaulted.
The documentary also goes to great lengths to present the revolution as an ongoing, cataclysmic movement, one in which moments of joy and catharsis – the removal of a dictator – are followed just days or weeks later by their antitheses: turmoil, police crackdowns and massacres.
As any examination of modern-day Egypt inevitably must, The Square often focuses on the religious divides between Muslims and Christians, or between conservative and liberal Muslims. But almost all of its finest and most illuminating moments comes when Noujaim’s cameras catch moments so raw and immediate that they transcend those divides.
In one scene, the mother of a murdered revolutionary weeps by the side of his coffin. In another, one of the film’s central characters recalls years of brutality at the hands of Egypt’s secret police: “You become afraid of dreaming, in case you dream the wrong dream and they come and take you.”
Perhaps the most telling aspect of The Square’s narrative is its cyclical nature. Almost all of the central characters profiled in the documentary – including liberal revolutionaries, Muslims, Christians and Muslim Brotherhood members – are at one point or another taken by surprise at the ever-changing nature of Egypt’s ongoing revolution.
In the summer of 2012, Ahmed Hassan, the film’s central protagonist, tells a fellow activist that the Muslim Brotherhood has betrayed the revolution by cutting a deal to align with the country’s military. Less than a year later, Hassan finds himself calling to check in on the same activist after a brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood by the military.
“What I’ve feared has started to happen,” he says, toward the end of the documentary. “We’ll start to fight each other.”
Sept. 13, 3 p.m., Bloor Hot Docs Cinema