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January 24, 2014

Movies You Missed & More: The Square

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 10.03.54 AMThis week in movies you missed: It's pre-Oscars month! Let's talk about some nominees that never reached our theaters.

That includes all but one of the potential Best Documentaries: The Act of Killing (my review here), Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars and this week's MYM, The Square. (The fifth nominee, 20 Feet From Stardom, played at the Roxy and Savoy.)

What You Missed

You already know the story, or maybe you half-know it from chaotic footage on CNN and YouTube. In early 2011, activists filled Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest the military-backed rule of president Hosni Mubarak. He was forced to step down, to be replaced in 2012 by elected Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, who was in turn ousted last summer after liberal demonstrators protested his abuses of power.

That's where this documentary from Jehane Noujaim (The Control Room) stops, but the story is, of course, far from over.

Noujaim was with protestors in the Square from the beginning. Devoid of voice-of-God narration (except for the occasional on-screen explanatory text), The Square follows a handful of passionate young demonstrators from disillusionment to triumph and back to disillusionment and fear of the future ... over and over.

The default narrator and protagonist is Ahmed Hassan (pictured), a fiery, photogenic young street artist from a working-class background. His friends include Khalid Abdalla, a London-based actor (star of The Kite Runner) who returned to Egypt to protest Mubarak; and Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member and family man who was tortured under Mubarak's regime.

Najaim uses heated conversations between Ashour and his more liberal, secular fellow protestors as a microcosm of the conflict that gripped the resistance movement after Mubarak's fall. Hassan accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of "cutting deals" with the military, while Ashour insists their rise to power indicates the will of the people. That conflict, needless to say, remains bitter and unresolved in Egypt today.

Why You Missed It

The Square is one of the new line of Netflix Originals distributed by the streaming juggernaut. It played in seven theaters before joining the company's Instant lineup; a DVD release hasn't yet been announced.

Should You Keep Missing It?

If you're a little confused about the constant upheavals in Egypt (I admit I was), no. The Square offers powerful, you-are-there footage, a gripping narrative and human faces to fix the phases of the conflict in your memory.

It also offers a convincing refutation of the old black-power slogan, "The Revolution will not be televised." It will be, apparently — if not by the state-controlled media.

"As long as there's a camera, the revolution will continue," says Hassan at one point. He's referring to the key role of YouTube, where protestors draw global support by posting videos of military brutality and the wounds they've received. Thanks to smartphones, no one with broadband had to wait for CNN to show them the uprising in Tahrir Square.

The film is a compelling, if exhausting, experience. But is it also propaganda? Does it tell the full story, or just one side?

Max Fisher makes a very good case in this Washington Post piece for the need for a fuller picture than Noujaim provides. The documentary, he points out, is pretty obviously slanted toward the liberal, educated demonstrators and away from the Muslim Brotherhood, treating Morsi's downfall as an unqualified triumph and ignoring instances in which the military massacred MB protestors.

That's not a huge surprise, considering that the film's maker and most of its potential Western viewers aren't terribly sympathetic to the Islamist point of view. (Ashour comes off in the film as a nice guy, but misguided.) But Fisher argues that we can't thoroughly understand the Egyptian conflict without that perspective.

Verdict: Watch and judge for yourself. But read some broader-picture analysis, too. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries are great for immersing yourself in someone else's world, but they don't always offer the tools you need to grasp that world in context.

This Week in Theaters

Oh, January doldrums. I just can't wait to see Two-Face (aka Aaron Eckhart) play a superhero version of Frankenstein's monster in I, Frankenstein, can you?

More promisingly, there's a biopic about Charles Dickens cheating on his wife, The Invisible Woman, at the Savoy.

This Week on Video

Time to catch up on Oscar nominees Blue Jasmine and Captain Phillips; should-have-been Oscar nominee (for Best Screenplay) In a World...; and only-in-Bizarro-World-Oscar-nominee Machete Kills.

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