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Documentary sheds light on Egypt’s religious and political divisions

By MONIQUE EL-FAIZY
Religion News Service
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- Courtesy of Noujaim Films
Egyptian activist Ramy Essam, right, in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary “The Square.”

CAIRO There’s a lot anyone can learn from Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square,” an examination of the 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

But Egyptians may be least able to benefit from its lessons. So far, the film has not been approved for screening in Egypt.

On the third anniversary of Mubarak’s ouster, Feb. 11, Egypt is more polarized than ever, largely between those who are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support the military. The film is a reminder of what Egyptians share, regardless of religious or political beliefs.

“The Square” depicts the uprising through the eyes of six revolutionaries who lived in Tahrir Square during those historic weeks and follows them as Egyptians struggled to redefine themselves. Mubarak’s ouster ushered in a tumultuous period that saw clashes with the military, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the return to the streets to demand the deposal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi, and the sit-ins that followed Morsi’s overthrow by the army.

The film, available to American audiences on Netflix and in theaters, ends with the clearing of the Morsi supporters’ encampment, which resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths. Since then, the Brotherhood has been outlawed and people have been arrested for simply possessing Brotherhood materials, now a crime.

Noujaim, 39, is an accomplished documentarian and TED Prize winner whose credits include “Startup.com” and “Control Room,” a film about the Al-Jazeera network. “The Square,” though, is not a film that intends to accurately and journalistically represent all factions. Noujaim, an Egyptian-American who spent much of her childhood in Egypt, lived on Tahrir Square with her characters during the revolution. In many ways, she is one of them, and “The Square” is her contribution to the revolution.

The film depicts those historic events from the revolutionary’s point of view. There were hundreds of thousands of people in the square; Noujaim chose to follow the ones she was intrigued by, trusting that viewers would do the same.

Two of the most captivating characters are Ahmed Hassan, a young street revolutionary, and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a father of four who, under Mubarak, was imprisoned and tortured. Despite their differing backgrounds and perspectives, the two become fast friends, and the exchanges between them provide some of the film’s most compelling moments.

When Morsi was first elected, many Egyptians opted for Muslim rule. But that feeling didn’t last long. Only 150 days into his presidency, Morsi made a power grab that gave him even more authority than Mubarak.

The revolutionaries were upset with his autocratic maneuvers and with the new constitution that the Islamist-dominated parliament drafted, which they considered a betrayal of the ideals they had fought for. Noujaim said she spoke to many ordinary Egyptians during that time – many of them practicing Muslims – who were “deeply disturbed” that the ruling party was now determining who constituted a good Muslim.

“The Square” has already thawed some icy relations in the places it’s been shown. Noujaim said she spoke to an Egyptian woman in the United States who had seen “The Square” on Netflix, and decided to bring her family to a screening.

Like many other Egyptian families, they were so divided over events that relatives weren’t talking to one another. Seeing the film together enabled them to find enough understanding to enable them to begin to communicate once again, the woman told Noujaim.

“We are all human beings,” Noujaim said. “Reminding ourselves of our humanity is a very simple idea, but I think it couldn’t be more important right now.”

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