We are living through a golden age of documentary film. Surely “The Square,” a riveting account of the Arab Spring as it played out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between 2011 and 2013, argues in favor of such optimism. In something under two hours, director Jehane Noujaim’s film — which recently screened at the New York Film Festival — offers an intellectually and emotionally rich view of the philosophies and passions that moved ordinary Egyptian citizens to throw themselves into their country’s historical moment with an extraordinary level of commitment.
Noujaim, an Egyptian-American and Harvard graduate with a solid professional portfolio in documentary filmmaking, wends her way around and through the massive street demonstrations that made Cairo’s central traffic circle and public square the locus of protest, first against the 30-year tyrannical rule of Hosni Mubarak, and then against his democratically-elected replacement, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, whose one-year tenure was judged a betrayal of the democratic spirit which fed the popular street revolution in the first place.
“The Square” follows the lives of six relatively young Egyptians who each take up the revolutionary banner in those first protests calling for Mubarak’s ouster. Noujaim is more than lucky in her choice of subjects. Pride of place goes to Ahmed Hassan, a mid-20s charmer of working-class background who throws his body into the fray, and uses his native intelligence and big heart to argue at top volume until he’s hoarse. He represents revolutionary fervor at its best: committed to social justice for his compatriots, even the Islamists of the Brotherhood of whose religious zeal he is wary. Ahmed is also committed to the crucial notion of individual conscience, which must sustain a civil society if it is to endure.