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‘The Square’ Documents a Changing, Explosive and Hopeful Egypt

“The Square,” a vivid documentary of the Egyptian revolution, lays bare some of civilization’s basic impulses: to express, interpret and document human experience, particularly in troubled times.

Starting with the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011, director Jehane Noujaim’s movie combines street-level cinema verite footage, much of which viscerally depicts the violence between protesters and the military and police, with extensive coverage of protesters that represent a wide array of Egyptians fed up with the state of political affairs. Most prominently in the film, Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor who starred in “The Kite Runner”; Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Ahmed Hassan, a young, working-class man, guide the footage and the story, which unfolds over a more-than-two-year time frame, from the fall of Hosni Mubarak to last summer’s coup that deposed Mohammed Morsi.

The movie, which opens at Washington’s West End Cinema and on Netflix on Friday, is one with contemporary currency, as Egyptians vote this week on a referendum on a draft constitution that replaced Morsi’s rule. Critics see the vote as a flawed exercise that will only solidify military rule. The film depicts a raw side to the upheaval that has defined Egypt over the past three years, capturing the danger that has come with the simple act of assembly in the Middle East’s most populous country.

“Egyptians will not tolerate living under a repressive regime,” Noujaim told CQ Roll Call, quoting not just one of her principals, Hassan, but the rallying cry of the protesters: “The people demand the downfall of the regime.”

Such sentiment comes with a price. Of the people Noujaim follows, Hassan is grievously injured in one clash with security officials; Abdalla puts on hold a promising career; Ashour struggles to reconcile his relationships with fellow revolutionaries with his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he doubts has the purest motives in Egypt’s dangerous politics. Another voice of the protesters, singer Ramy Essam, is captured and tortured by security officials, his wounds documented in graphic detail for the camera.

And yet, there is an optimism that the principals carry, the sort that led them and countless others to defy first Mubarak, then the military, then Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and now the military again. “It’s been good at pulling down regimes,” said producer Karim Amer. He predicted that if, as expected, Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi runs for president, the best way to get rid of him might be to put him in what is often referred to as the “seat of fire.” At least in the past few years, being the leader puts one on the fast track to being deposed. “It’s taken out three regimes in three years,” Amer said of the revolution.

For all of its heavy political content and rough imagery, there are moments of grace in the movie. Its chapters are divided with scenes of the Egyptian artist Abu Amar, an art teacher from Luxor, painting the many stages of the revolution. “The square was very much a canvas,” Amer said, and the artist depicted with street-art-style murals in downtown Cairo what happened every step of the way.

“He also has quite a sense of humor,” Noujaim said, recounting a story of how some journalists have praised Amar for bringing “graffiti and writing on walls to get your opinions across. This is the first time Egyptians have done this,” she said, then recalling his reply, “Yeah, well, you know, we’ve been writing on walls for 5,000 years.”

Another incident Noujaim relayed was that the Muslim Brotherhood kept whitewashing his murals, until he figured out how to get around that. He painted a Koranic verse across his work that said, “Beware of people coming cloaked in religion that try to manipulate.” When the whitewashers came, they couldn’t paint it over, as it would be blasphemy.

That kind of adaptability, and humor, helps define not just “The Square” but the confidence that many of the protesters bring to such a time in Egypt’s long history.

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