If John Reed had been equipped with a digital camera rather than a typewriter in Mexico in 1913 or Russia in 1917, I doubt that he could have produced a film that surpasses “The Square” that opened yesterday at the Film Forum in New York (it arrives in three different locations in California on November 1.) Directed by Jehane Noujaim, a 39-year-old Egyptian-American whose best known previous credit was the al-Jazeera documentary “The Control Room”, was on location in Egypt from the inception of the Tahrir Square occupation to the overthrow of Morsi. Not only was she on location, she appeared to be in the middle of the most decisive events, at times involving triumph and other times defeat. And even more decisively, she extracts the maximum drama and visual impact out of each moment, making her arguably one of the finest documentary filmmakers on the scene today.
The film “stars” a group of Egyptians who were on the front lines of the revolution, including a young man named Ahmed Hassan who narrowly escaped with his life in a skirmish with the Egyptian military. When he was 8 years old, he was selling lemons on the street. His hope is only that Egyptians can live in a society where there are democratic rights, opportunity for all, and free from corruption. Throughout the film he voices both his elation at feeling that moment might be arriving and despair at realizing that it might be some time in arriving.
His old friend Magdy is a bearded Muslim Brotherhood member who defies the instructions of his leaders to take part in Tahrir Square protests. He has earned credibility with Ahmed for withstanding torture over the years in pursuit of what he perceived as a better Egypt under Islamic rule even though Ahmed has little interest in a Muslim state. His vision is one of an Egypt in which Muslim, Christian, and nonbeliever can stand together in pursuit of the common good.
The film includes a couple of notables, who despite their celebrity take risks equal to Ahmed and Magdy. One is Khalid Abdalla, the Egyptian-British actor who starred in “The Kite Runner”. He is seen in Skype conversations with his father who has been a long-standing opponent of the Mubarak dictatorship. We also meet Ramy Essam, the singer who is the unofficial voice of the revolution. After the overthrow of Mubarak, he is picked up by the cops and tortured in the Egyptian museum—a site that is the nation’s counterpart to the notorious soccer stadium in Chile where Victor Jara was murdered.
Among the courageous women profiled in the film is Aida El Kashef, the young filmmaker who is friends with Ramy Essam and who used her camera to expose the brutality and lies of the dictatorship.
The film consists of three acts:
–The overthrow of Mubarak
–The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood
–The growing disenchantment with the Brotherhood and the military coup that exploited those feelings.
Like a Shakespearean play, the characters are constantly in dialog weighing their decisions on the street corner or in living rooms. There is tension throughout since the stakes are so high. When the Muslim Brotherhood assumes power, Ahmed lashes into Magdy who has little in the way of a defense of a constitution that gives Morsi more power than Mubarak ever had. But when the army topples Morsi, Ahmed rushes to Tahrir Square to close ranks with the Muslim Brothers.
The film also includes a couple of military figures who are hoisted on their own petard as they reveal to Jehane Noujaim how little they believe in democracy even as their top officers are announcing on Egyptian television that they are with the protesters.
In the final paragraph of the synopsis found in the press notes, we encounter a statement that not only serves as a compass for the directions of a successful Egyptian revolution but one that should be carefully noted by the Western left so frequently demoralized by its own failure to achieve a swift and decisive victory:
Our goal for audiences is to experience the evolution of a revolution in the 21st century and understand what these activists are trying to say: civil rights and freedoms are never given away, they are fought for. Historically, this has always been the case, from the Civil Rights movement to the fight against Apartheid. But how does this fight begin and sustain itself and ultimately become successful? This film shows that true change in a society does not begin with a majority, but the relentless and ongoing commitment of individuals to those principles of change.
While by no means as politically and artistically realized as “The Square”, “The Green Wave” that becomes available as a DVD and through ITunes on November 5th (check http://www.thegreenwave-film.com/ for information) is a good companion piece.
Unlike Jehane Noujaim, Ali Samadi Ahadi, the 41-year-old Iranian filmmaker who has lived in Germany since the age of 12, was not in Iran during the events depicted in “The Green Wave”. Like “The Square”, “The Green Wave” begins in jubilation and ends in despair. The 2009 election campaign of Mir-Hossein Mousavi united every Iranian tired of the brutality and the crony capitalism of the Islamic Republic, which behind its pious pretensions had much more in common with Mubarak than might be apparent at first glance. And even more to the point, it might make sense to think of the election campaign as a harbinger of the Arab Spring even as many on the left tend to regard the Green Movement in Iran as some kind of imperialist plot.
Despite his absence from the battlefield, Ahadi manages to produce a coherent documentary out of three separate strands:
–Footage of rallies and protests that were obviously taken by activists given their often-unfocused quality. What they lack in visual acuity is made up for by their impact as living history.
–Animated representation of the experience of young bloggers who worked on the Mousavi campaign and suffered repression for their “impious” behavior.
–Interviews with leading critics of the Ahmadinejad dictatorship such as Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi who went into exile in 2009. Despite the tendency of some leftists to depict any opponent of Ahmadinejad as an imperialist tool, Ebadi’s credentials are impeccable. She was a supporter of Mossadegh and even backed Khomeini initially. She is also an outspoken critic of Israel and supported a California BDS bill.
But unlike “The Square”, the emphasis is entirely on human rights rather than revolutionary strategy. Almost every moment of the film is devoted to exposure of state brutality, including summary executions, torture, and beatings on the street.
Despite the glum conclusion of the film, the promise of the Mousavi campaign might be finally realized in the election of Hassan Rouhani last month who has released political prisoners, defended equal rights for women, and called for greater political freedom. Whether or not this will whet the appetite for greater change in Iran is uncertain at this point, given the body blow the mass movement suffered in 2009.
When watching these films, I found myself pondering the question why revolutions are vanquished time and time again. In a pattern that is repeated over and over, the “people” unite against a hated dictator only to suffer a new period of suffering often under an ostensibly democratic and popular government. This is generally regarded as the “Arab Winter” today but the phenomenon can be just as easily perceived in Burma where the nation’s “Nelson Mandela” is now seen as a too-willing partner of the army and indifferent to pogroms against Muslims.
Perhaps it is time to retire the “new Nelson Mandela” meme while we are at it since South Africa is probably the best symbol of unrealized revolutionary hopes anywhere in the world.
It seems that in almost every instance of such uprisings, the “people” come to the fore in a kind of nationalist desire for redemption and rebirth but without a class dimension and often placing hopes in a military that is on “the side of the people”, the classic example being the Kerensky government in Russia.
For those educated in the Trotskyist tradition, it is easy as pie to come up with an answer. The revolution has to be “Bolshevik” in character with the working class in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, groups established upon such principles tend to be ignored by the masses since they rest on the assumption that the masses will gravitate to them on the virtue of their profound thoughts.
I wonder if the answer is to synthesize the popular hopes of the Arab Spring with a class orientation that is more implicit than explicit. Keep in mind that the Bolsheviks called for “Peace, Bread, and Land”—not a proletarian dictatorship. Also, keep in mind that the July 26th Movement in Cuba formulated its demands in terms of fulfilling democracy and social justice rather than Communism. When Cuba did become communist (for lack of a better word), it was only as a result of the dialectics of defending democracy and social justice.
At any rate, I recommend these two films for anybody interested in deepening their understanding of revolutions in the 21st century, particularly in nations with a strong Islamic presence. Karl Marx never had to grapple with such complexity and it is up to us to come up with answers that make sense and can move the struggle forward—remembering to leave your dogma at the front door with your shoes.