Jehane Noujaim's The Square

NYFF Critics Academy member Judith Dry looks at two NYFF Official Selection films—one a historical narrative, the other an of-the-moment documentary—that explore revolution and its consequences. Both films have added screenings on October 13.

Don’t call Egypt a failed state—it is laying the foundation for a great paradigm shift, the fruits of which may not ripen for ten or twenty years. Egyptians have waited this long for liberation; they can wait a little longer. So says Jehane Noujaim, director of The Square, an electric documentary that pulses with the vitality of its namesake and subject, Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The Square is about as radical a film as its own magnetic characters. And characters they are. The footage is raw, the events very real, but our young and fearless guide, Ahmed, is such a charismatic protagonist, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a documentary. The film spans the entirety of the protests in Tahrir Square, beginning in January 2011 and ending almost in present day, August 2013. Revisiting those early days through the wide eyes of the revolution’s ecstatic creators, we are invited to share their excitement about Tahrir Square, “where a tent and a blanket can solve all your problems!”

Ahmed is joined by Magdi, a left-leaning Muslim Brotherhood member who skirts the party line until concern for his family’s safety compels him to close ranks. Another leader is Khalid Abdalla, an actor known to U.S. audiences from his role in The Kite Runner, and a third generation freedom fighter. Strategizing via Skype is his father, who fled to England over thirty years ago to escape imprisonment for political activism. Their conversations are particularly poignant, as his father’s emotional response to Mubarak stepping down morphs into deepening cynicism as he urges Khalid to give up and come home. His presence in the film pays homage to the previous decades of work that paved the way for this revolution, and a reminder of the millions of Egyptians scattered around the world watching with bated breath.

Agnieszka Holland's Burning Bush

Rather than let tragic moments (and there are some) drag it down, The Square bounds onward, fueled by Ahmed’s fighting spirit and the crowd’s frenetic energy. Its sweeping birds-eye shots of crowds scattered by gunshots and rows of Muslim Brotherhood bowing in prayer are offset by a recurring close-up of an ever-changing painting, the old layer giving way to the new as each chapter in the story unfolds. It’s a needed burst of color amid the greys and beiges of the buildings and nighttime raids, but it also begs the question: What if artists wrote the history books and news bulletins? We might start to view these faraway battles with a little more humanity, as The Square allows us—nay—implores us to do.

Thirty years before Tahrir Square, student demonstrations in Prague began what would become known as the Velvet Revolution, beginning on the twentieth anniversary of a radical act by another student named Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the “demoralization” of the Czechoslovak citizens caused by the Soviet occupation. The events following are the subject of Agnieszka Holland’s sweeping four-hour mini-series, aptly titled Burning Bush (Hořící keř). For a film about the third most Atheist country in the world, this Biblical title alludes to the tremendous impact of Palach’s action.

The sprawling three part series, screened with one intermission, anchors around two women: a young lawyer, Dagmar Buresová (Tatiana Pauhofová), and Palach’s mother, Libuse Palachová (an absolutely devastating Jaroslava Pokorná), and the libel case they bring against the state for whitewashing Palach’s motivations. The first part focuses on the aftermath of the tragedy—the few days Palach survived in critical condition, the censorship of the student newspapers banned from printing his note, and the Communist policeman charged with preventing others from following suit. Knowing as I did that Palach died, I couldn’t quite stomach the slowly unfolding tragedy with its scenes of sad news reaching his family, moving though it was. A triumph of the film’s immediacy, it felt too voyeuristic, and I was anxious to hear the rest of the story.

Agnieszka Holland's Burning Bush

The second and third parts are markedly darker, with vivid examples of, to use Holland’s words, “this soft but extremely corrupting oppression.” First there are endless phone calls to the grieving mother—always hang-ups—made heartbreaking by Pokorná’s sad eyes and sweet greeting. Then, Buresová’s trusted friend and colleague informs on her in order to spare his activist daughter from jail, and her husband is falsely accused of inappropriate conduct and demoted. The absurd pains taken to uphold the illusion of a free society culminate with the trial itself, as witnesses drop like flies and Buresová scrambles to build her case. In the end the judge is literally handed the verdict by a party official, lest she be transferred to Northern Moravia.

Holland’s impeccable eye for detail had me wondering, why all the construction in the background? Luckily, in the four hours I had to figure it out, I remembered that needless renovations were commonplace, in order to keep the workers working, another farce. And Holland lingers on women’s feet—a heel breaking, or slipping in the mud, a soaked stocking, serving as a subtle reminder of the extra pains women must endure. And always there are the children, chirping for “Maminka,” wielded as bargaining chips, and the one who broke his mother forever with his unspeakable act. “Man is really just an animal, he cares only for himself and his young. In the end, he does what he is told to do,” grunts a resigned detective. When you cannot trust friends, colleagues, or neighbors, all you have left is your family.

The film ends in 1989 with fliers of Palach’s face scattered through the metro and text connecting the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia to Palach’s deed twenty years earlier. Revolutionaries, you see, whether in Cairo or Prague, will wait as long as they must for true freedom, and the radical act today sets in motion the liberation of tomorrow.