The Square (2013): Oscar Documentary Challenge Entry #3

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I feel a bit like a student who knew when their big assignment’s due date was, and kind of did a lot of work, but didn’t quite finish, and therefore won’t turn in the assignment at all, and then hopes the teacher doesn’t notice (as if teachers just forget these things). Maybe I was hoping to distract everyone with the Arrested Development posts. Did it work?

In an earlier post, I committed to watching all the Oscar nominated documentaries (4 out of the 5 are on streaming, with the 5th being one I’ve seen in the theater). I knew I was giving myself a March 2nd deadline, which seemed like plenty of time. It was plenty of time, but I couldn’t manage to find the time in my busy schedule (it’s almost like I have others thing to do besides watch movies!)

I’ve gotten so close, watching The Square (2013) last night. The only one I won’t finish in time for the Oscar ceremonies tonight is The Act of Killing, which according to a friend, made him “lose faith in humanity, and I’m a community college teacher, so that’s saying a lot.” So that movie is a definite contender and will be something I review later on this week. After watching The Square, I’d have to say the competition is between those two movies.

I’ve been eager to watch this one for months now, ever since it drew attention for being distributed exclusively through Netflix. The movie starts where many others might have ended- with “revolutionaries” gathered in Tahrir Square, the most important and symbolic public space in Egypt, celebrating the removal of the corrupt despot Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. The music at this point is hopeful, the participants speak optimistically, and in broad terms about their success. Seeing that there was still an hour and a half left after this opening segment, I hoped that the tone wouldn’t remain constant, or else this movie would have been a long pat-on-the-back fluff piece saying how great everyone was in bringing about change.

Thankfully, the director Jehane Noujaim, stuck around for the aftermath, the part of most films that you have to fill in yourself by searching on Wikipedia or Google for the latest, or reading the postscripts at the end of the film before the final credits roll. We see change does not come so easy. The first ominous sign of what is to come is when the crowds disperse after the removal of Mubarak, at the request of the Egyptian army, who say they will never hurt Egyptians, but they can go home. The principal characters in the film (one of which is the star of the film The Kite Runnerrealize their mistake, with several of them independently verbalizing that they should have never left the square until a new constitution had been drafted. 

I was reminded of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude while watching this film, as the same things continue to happen over and over again, this time not generation after generation, but leader after leader (or lack of leader). Not much has changed after six months of military rule, and whereas you are shown at the beginning sympathetic, idealistic, intelligent, and mostly secular Egyptians fighting for change (with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood joining the revolutionaries because it’s the right thing to do as a human, not as a Muslim), opportunistic members of the Muslim Brotherhood move in to the vacuum and begin co-opting the movement for a new Egypt. Anyone who has been brainwashed into believing that government and religion are actually separate in this country should see parallels between what the Muslim Brotherhood does and what the Christian Right has done in our country.

The consequences of this development of course are more drastic and deadly for Egyptians, and even if you are intimately familiar from watching or reading the news about Egypt for the last couple of years, you will see things you probably have not seen before, and get a close-up and graphic view of events that probably were censored by our media here in the United States. The film does bring up the fact that the USA and other nations actually supported indirectly the killing of Egyptians, but doesn’t dwell on that. The real strength of the film, besides having a ground view of history in the making, is that it lets those involved in the democracy movement tell their story. It doesn’t need voice-overs, or to bring in swelling music to make us feel something.

At the end, the optimism of the beginning of the film remains, while being tempered by the reality that bringing about true change requires persistence and dedication to your guiding principles and beliefs. One revolutionary bemoans the fact that they are not successful because they don’t know how to compromise. But on the other hand, that is exactly what makes them extraordinary and worth watching, and supporting in real life in any way we can.

So, after watching 4 out of the 5 entries, The Square is my pick for Best Documentary. IMDB rating: 9 out of 10. Netflix rating: 5 out of 5.

A not so distant, but not really that close either, runner-up would be 20 Feet from Stardom (available on DVD only)

A really distant third would be Dirty WarsBringing up the rear is the modest in its ambitions Cutie and the Boxer

Look for an updated ranking when I post about The Act of Killing later this week.

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