Sizzling with urgency and vital with ideas as it chronicles events that could easily seem too familiar, it is a remarkable documentary.
Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, whose excellent “Control Room” presented an Al-Jazeera newsroom reporting on the Iraq War, offers another frenzied Middle East setting — Cairo’s Tahrir Square — in this fly-on-the-wall-style depiction of intimate encounters and momentous events transpiring there.
She begins in January 2011, when protesters of different stripes are, as one puts it, “willing to die” at the hands of the brutal army as they unite in the square to call for an end to Hosni Mubarak’s reign.
Mubarak resigns, to jubilation. But solidarity shatters when a deal made with the army allows the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Mohammed Morsi, to take power in a June 2012 election. When Morsi assumes dictatorial powers, protests lead to his ouster. Further terror takes place when post-Morsi troops kill hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters.
Noujaim focuses on three figures. As in “Control Room,” she has chosen articulate, interesting, likable subjects as anchors: Ahmed Hassan, a 20-something secular activist, radiates idealism and enthusiasm; Khalid Abdalla, a London-raised actor (“The Kite Runner”) in his 30s, wants to use his media savvy to bring the democracy movement global attention; and Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member in his 40s, believes in an Islamic state but disapproves of how the Morsi government uses religion as a political tool.
With this trio, and supporting players including a young female filmmaker and a tortured-by-police singer, Noujaim can’t possibly capture the full psyche of the revolution. Nor does she include much background detail about the leaders the rebels seek to bring down.
Yet the film is a skillfully made, stirring picture of a revolution in progress and a dazzling celebration of the rebel spirit.
Whether with overhead shots of the massive protests, footage of army tanks running over protesters, or a scene in which Abdalla argues over whether a citizen should vote in an election containing no acceptable candidates, Noujaim keeps audiences rapt, even when they see what’s coming.
Were this fiction, there would likely be a rosier ending, but the triumphs, exhilaration and hope Noujaim captures are real and uplifting.
Election-related events in Egypt this week indicate the struggle is hardly over, and perhaps Noujaim will make a follow-up to “The Square.” Her subjects are worthy of another visit. In the meantime, this documentary stands as exceptional viewing.
Starring Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Ahmed Hassan, Aida Elkashef
Directed by Jehane Noujaim
Running time 1 hour, 44 minutes