Democracy isn't easy. Netflix's Oscar-nominated documentary about a few of the Egyptian revolutionaries who have frequented/inhabited Tahrir Square since the beginning of the Arab Spring paints this picture in a way that will make the dysfunction of our government seem exceedingly quaint.
Frustrated by last October's government shutdown or the end of unemployment benefits? Try fashioning a democracy out of nothing other than popular support and a refusal to simply go away. Try doing it when the people that want to be rid of you have tanks and few moral qualms about resorting to base thuggery and torture to make that happen.
The strength of Jehane Noujaim's The Square lies in its unprecedented access to a few revolutionaries as they do everything from clean the famed ground where their revolution began to bicker internally about their purpose to verbally spar with military leaders to dodge fists and blunt objects meant to harm them. You can't find intensely personal footage like this of the revolution on the ground anywhere else (at least to my knowledge).
But it also gathers strength from its willingness to show the very cracks that continue to threaten the success of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt -- the internal disagreements that have played a part in preventing these revolutionaries from achieving greater success. Noujaim trains her focus on a handful of characters that help pierce the complicated inner workings of the movement.
There is Khalid Abdalla, an actor and native of the United Kingdom who returned to Egypt as an activist supporting the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. There is Ahmed Hassan, a more "ordinary" activist and a moderate Muslim committed to the cause. There is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who finds himself torn between his secular friends like Ahmad and the Brotherhood during the rise and fall of now deposed President Mohamed Morsi. And there is singer Ramy Essam and Aida Elkashef and a host of other figures who give the film solid depth -- a sense that most everyone is represented even if not in an entirely fair manner.
Egypt still has quite a bit to figure out as a country in case you haven't been following the news from there since Spring 2011. The Square reflects this, and as such it ends up feeling more like extended journalism than a documentary. Perhaps that's splitting hairs, but when it comes to documentaries, I tend to prefer that they tell a story from start to finish or, failing that, at least suggest a path forward. The images and sounds captured by Noujaim in Tahrir Square are of the can't-miss variety, but, much like the Arab Spring, the rest of the film feels unresolved.