'The Square' brings Egyptian Revolution to Santa Monica

"The Square," a stirring, harrowing experience that takes the viewer inside the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and its continuing aftershocks, is a chronicle of the human drama that drove the Arab Spring and defined the second decade of the 21st century. Director Jehane Noujaim filmed the events on the spot that began in January 2011. The documentary focuses on three Egyptians from diverse backgrounds.

The first is Ahmed, a passionate young student, who quickly takes to the streets when the masses rise up against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

Then comes Magdy, a family man, who is also a member of the Islamic political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and supports the upheaval, but is also committed to his party's vision of an Islamic state.

The third person the film follows is Khaleed, an actor, who became famous in the film "The Kite Runner," but now spends his time at the revolution's focal point, Tahrir Square, where he mobilizes the people against tyranny and provides a voice on international outlets such as CNN to explain the happenings on the streets of Egypt.

As the revolution unfolds and Mubarak falls, these three characters experience hope, friendship and then terrible heartbreak as social divisions emerge, and cultural ties are stretched thin. Above it all hovers the Egyptian Army, which insists on retaining power even if it means terrible bloodshed in the streets.

"The Square" is more captivating than most of the big budget, Hollywood movies now playing. It is such a powerful experience because it is real.

Noujaim mixes her team's footage with cellphone clips, YouTube videos and Skype conversations that show how the events unfolded month by month, sometimes day by day. There are moments that are astounding and visceral, particularly when the film takes the viewer inside the street battles where Cairo burned and people clashed with security forces.

These scenes are terrifying. There are moments when security forces storm toward the camera, their malevolent faces visible as they target the cameraman. The viewer can almost smell the tear gas or taste the blood. It is as if someone went back in time to the French Revolution and filmed inside the barricades of the Paris Commune.

But the great value of the movie is how it provides voices and faces to the ongoing struggle in Egypt. We have seen the shots of the crowds countless times on TV, but here the participants of the uprising become defined. Noujaim attempts to give a voice to the different social sectors fighting to tear down a decayed system.

"The Square" lets the viewer hear the ideas, hopes, and conflicts raging between friends and family. The gallery of characters is memorable. Aida, a chain-smoking revolutionary, is probably the sharpest of the bunch when she warns the men around her that with the army in charge there is no real revolution.

She knows that this is one of the great tragedies of the Egyptian Revolution — how the regime was taken down in a time of political, ideological vacuum.

This year, the elected government of Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by the army which has re-established a hardline regime. In the movie, it becomes clear why the cycle has repeated itself. The revolutionaries chant "bread, freedom and social justice," but unlike their counterparts in Latin America, they have not formed clear alternatives. The Muslim Brotherhood and then the army fill the void, provoking more rage when they respectively abuse the powers of the state.

The great struggle, now setting the Arab world on fire, will be defined by what emerges when the storm settles.

At Santa Monica College, students from the Middle East live with these issues.

Amirah Majrashi is from Saudi Arabia, a land ruled by a monarchy that has tried to make sure the flames of the Arab Spring do not reach its shores.

"In the countries where [upheaval] has happened like Libya and Egypt, there has not been educational stability," Majrashi says. "The governments never helped their people.

"I think the Arab Spring is necessary because if you want change, you have to be the change," she adds. "I hope all these countries reform and build themselves up in a way that is beneficial to everyone."

Esin, who wished not to disclose her full name, is from Turkey, where earlier this year, a mass uprising shook the Tayyip Erdogan government to its core.

"They were fighting dictatorship in the Arab countries," Esin says about the Arab Spring. "But now radical religious parties are taking control."

"If I were in Turkey right now, I would support them," Esin says about the recent outbreak of the protest in her own country. "They are not supporting any specific political party. Many groups are involved, including gay and lesbian groups. We just want democracy, and right now the government is trying to limit freedoms."

"The Square," which only plays in three theaters in the U.S., opened on Friday at Santa Monica's Laemmle's Monica Fourplex theater at the Third Street Promenade, showing through Nov. 8.

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