“Tahrir: Liberation Square” is a breathtaking and politically engaged documentary that opens tomorrow at The Maysles Theater in Harlem for a one week run. Anybody with more than a passing interest in the movements challenging the status quo over the past two years, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, will find it spellbinding but for my regular readers in the New York region, in other words the kind of people who marched against the banksters, it is a must.
The film is directed by Stefano Savona, who was an archaeologist by profession but who began making documentaries in 1999, including “Notes from a Kurdish Rebel” about the PKK in Turkey. The press notes allow Savona to explain what drew him to Tahrir Square:
Over the past twenty years, I have gone to Cairo almost every year and like everybody who knows and visits Egypt, I never expected the events of late January, early February 2011. On January 29, after hours in front of the al-Jazeera website, glued to the fragmentary and low-resolution online chronicle of the Egyptian Revolution, I decided to go there and see from close up who was on Tahrir Square, who were the thousands of people challenging the regime’s state of emergency laws. I wanted to understand what exactly they wanted, what their political orientation and their symbolic points of reference were, how they imagined their future. Tahrir Square offered a unique opportunity to film the full scope of Egyptian society, people from all backgrounds and social classes, together for the first time, united in the sole cause of bringing down dictatorship, barricaded on this huge square where police and the thugs of the regime could not enter.
Although Savona’s film is nominally cinéma vérité, it is not the typical fly-on-the-wall affair done by Frederick Wiseman imitators. Instead, it is a skillfully edited condensation of some of the most compelling scenes that most of us know only through second-hand reports or Youtube clips uploaded from a cell phone, etc. The director seems to be everywhere at once and has managed to pull together some of the most hair-raising footage one can imagine.
Very early in the film, we see about a hundred men and women circled around a man who has been lifted on another man’s shoulders and who is leading them in chants:
Mubarak, we hate you
You belong in a sarcophagus with the pharaohs
The people want the regime to fall
What’s the difference between us and them?
We are the people who work. We are the people who are hungry.
They dress like princes while we sleep 10 to a room.
Savona is there when the furious fight between protestors and Mubarak’s goons take place. We see a woman wearing traditional religious garbs, including a headdress, carrying paving stones to the front lines to be used against the thugs. When one of them is captured by the freedom fighters, we see him confessing how he got there. He was in prison the day before he was recruited to break up the protests, receiving 5000 pounds for his services.
Throughout the film we see small groups of Egyptians in the square having intense political discussions about the country’s future. What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? How will the army function if it takes Mubarak’s place? Nearly everybody agrees that neither the army nor the Islamists can be trusted, but as it turns out that is the choice Egyptians are now given, between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Mubarak’s last prime minister, the choice of the military.
The film ends on a triumphant note but one can easily imagine a follow-up to the documentary in which Stefano Savona returns to interview some of the key subjects. Is this what they risked life and limb for? To put up with the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious repression? Or even worse, to endure Mubarakism without Mubarak?
While there are obvious reasons for concern about Egypt’s future, I for one remain optimistic based on the evidence of the people vividly captured in “Tahrir: Liberation Square”. Over and over again, they express their willingness to die for their freedom and for social justice.
When watching this stirring film, I could not help but think of another work by a politically committed film-maker of which a sizable excerpt can now be seen online, namely Peter Watkin’s “La Commune” that I reviewed back in 2006. At that time, I wrote:
Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it makes this 135 year old struggle relevant to more recent ones, which was clearly the intention of its director Peter Watkins. As I sat watching it at the edge of my seat, practically breaking out in a cold sweat, I could not stop thinking about my visits to Nicaragua in the late 1980s when the country was like somebody hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingers. “La Commune” demonstrates that this is both the blessing and the curse of all revolutions. They are simultaneously great strides forward toward freedom and huge risks almost tantamount to Russian roulette.
I can only add that now it is Tahrir Square that I think of when I reflect back on Watkins’s dramatization of the first workers state in history.