“A painting is never finished, only abandoned,” goes the saying (usually attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci; probably apocryphal). Documentary filmmakers covering current events grapple with a more extreme version of the same idea: Since history is an ongoing process, how do you know when to stop shooting? The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s ground-level portrait of Egypt’s role in the Arab Spring and its aftermath, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January, but the version now opening in theaters includes a hefty chunk of material shot in the months since, updating the film through early August—not as a necessary epilogue (as when Paradise Lost 3: Purgatorynoted that its subjects had finally been released from prison), but simply because the struggle for democracy in Egypt is nowhere near over. As a result, there’s a sense in which The Square feels incomplete, like the first part of a much longer effort. It’s hard to blame Noujaim for presenting it to the public now, but the decision to do so is primarily political, not artistic.
Opening with the much-publicized occupation of Tahrir Square, the film initially seems overly familiar, trotting out different angles of the same images seen on CNN. What makes it valuable is its portrait of the weeks and months that followed President Mubarak’s resignation, during which protesters watched in dismay as Egypt’s military dictatorship was succeeded by a theocratic dictatorship, necessitating further revolutions. Noujaim focuses on a handful of these once exuberant, increasingly disillusioned activists, ranging from a conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood (whose candidate, Mohamed Morsi, wound up winning last year’s Presidential election) to a well-known actor (Khalid Abdalla, star of United 93 and The Kite Runner). Admirably self-aware, they redouble their efforts even as they acknowledge their mistakes; one of them ruefully notes that voluntarily leaving Tahrir Square when they first did was “like someone who did really well on an exam, but forgot to write their name.”
Having previously made documentaries about the Internet bubble (Startup.com) and Al Jazeera (Control Room), Noujaim has a keen understanding of gamesmanship, and she does a creditable job of following the various strategies and counter-strategies that emerged in the wake of Mubarak’s ousting. For those who don’t regularly follow the news from Egypt, The Square serves as a reasonably good primer. Trouble is, it’s a primer that’s out of date almost as soon as the final edit is made. When the film screened at Sundance, Morsi was still very much in power; Noujaim couldn’t know that a coup d’état was only six months away. Likewise, since the film was again “locked” and started traveling the fall festival circuit, Egypt has seen violent state-sponsored raids resulting in hundreds of deaths, the resignation of acting Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, an assassination attempt on the country’s minister of the interior, and other bloody mayhem. The situation remains much too turbulent for any film to function as more than a snapshot. Think of The Square as a bulletin from the front—one of many to come, in all likelihood.