Academy Awards, Ahmed Hassan, Best Feature Documentary nominee, Blackwater, cinema, covert military action, Dirty Wars, documentaries, documentary, Egyptian revolution, Film, Film festival, Hosni Mubarak, Jehane Noujaim, Jeremy Scahill, JSOC, Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Middle East, military, Movies, Muslim Brotherhood, Netflix, Oscar nominee, plausible deniability, political struggle, regimes, Rick Rowley, scandals, Somalia, Tahrir Square, The Kite Runner, The Square
Since another four films were viewed on Monday, I figure that we might as well split the day into two, especially since two of the films are current Best Feature Documentary nominees. I must admit that I’ve seen none of the Academy Award nominees, thus far, so the two documentaries below will represent my first foray into this year’s awards season. Better late than never, I suppose!
As far as I’m concerned, one of the best compliments that can be paid a documentary is that the viewer learns something organically rather than being force-fed information or a viewpoint. If I can be entertained and swept up in a story while still learning something or having my current viewpoint challenged…well, let’s just say that makes me a pretty happy guy. As such, I was damn happy about The Square.
Taking place between January 2011 and July 2013, The Square documents the Egyptian civil unrest that led to the ouster of two separate rulers and the upending of decades of oppression. By choosing to focus on a small handful of protesters, all of whom end up interacting with each other, the filmmakers take a very big event and manage to distill it down into a much more personal struggle. Ahmed Hassan, the first revolutionary we’re introduced to in the film, becomes a de facto hero, of sorts, serving as rallying cry for the change so desperately needed in Egypt. His character even goes through an arc from optimistic and brimming with passion to hesitant and reserved to angry and vengeful and back to hopeful and optimistic again. Magdy Ashour, a devout member of the Muslim Brotherhood, also goes through a pretty dramatic arc throughout the film, wavering from unabashed devotion to the Brotherhood to later condemning it before swaying back to support it again. Magdy’s story is much more tragic than Ahmed’s, in many ways, since Magdy is torn by not only the politics of the area but the religious strife, as well. We also spend quite a bit of time with Khalid Abdalla, the handsome star of The Kite Runner, who returns to his homeland of Egypt to throw himself headfirst into the protests.
And headfirst is, indeed, a pretty accurate way to describe the whole film. Once it’s off and running, The Square rarely pauses for breath or reflection: it has several hundred years worth of conflict to document in just over 90 minutes, after all. The approach is thrilling and the access seems (to me, at least) pretty unprecedented. There were several times during the film where I became so caught up in the first-person view of the protests that I almost felt like I was there, particularly during the terrible moments where the government lashes out at the gathered protesters.
The Square runs viewers through a well-organized, clear timeline of the tumultuous 2+ years detailed here. We begin with the ouster of Mubarak, see the results of the army assuming control of the country, the installation of the Muslim Brotherhood into power and their subsequent ouster due to another round of heated protests. There are a lot of factors to consider as far as the protests and fighting go but I felt that The Square laid them all out pretty clearly. The clear emphasis is on the protesters, as it should be, but we also spend some time with the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as it relates to Magdy. One of the most chilling moments in the entire film is the one where an army officer flashes a wicked grin at the filmmakers and explains that they have absolutely no idea of who actually controls the country. It’s a small, quiet moment in a film that’s often bustling with activity and emotion but it put icicles through my spine.
As a documentary, The Square is very well-crafted. I was initially a bit hesitant, since I felt that the opening seemed a little rehearsed and insincere. In short order, however, I was hooked and just as caught up in the events as any fictional narrative film. Like many Westerners, I was aware of the broad strokes of the situation (Mubarak gone, army in control, Morsi in control, Morsi gone) but had absolutely no clue as to the actual repercussions of those living there. I was most struck by how universal the actual protest was: once we’re on the ground in Tahrir Square, it’s not hard to squint our eyes and see echoes of the Occupy Movement that (briefly) swept North America.
There are two moments in the film that really stuck with, moments that I’ll probably think a lot about in the future. After the military announces that Morsi has been replaced and that there will be a new round of elections, Ahmed gleefully pledges to keep protesting and encouraging others to do the same until the people get the government that THEY want, not the one forced on them. “Our lives are now to be lived in the streets,” he says, and I really believe him. I know, for a fact, that Ahmed will continue to protest and fight for what he believes in and, strangely enough, that gives me just the slightest bit of hope regarding the world. He won’t back down: why should we?
There’s another moment, however, that I found just as powerful. Towards the end, Khalid mentions that no one will really know if the revolution has succeeded for decades; they must wait and see if their work has all been for naught. The people will continue to question and fight, however: “They’re not looking for a leader,” he says, “they’re looking for a conscience.” If that’s not a universal sentiment, I don’t know what is.
I will begin by saying that Dirty Wars is definitely not for everyone. There are many who might compare this film to like-minded conspiracy docs (many of which seem to be available on Netflix) or propaganda pieces. It definitely expresses a particular viewpoint, a viewpoint that many Americans will, no doubt, take umbrage with. Luckily, I’m not here to discuss politics, conspiracy theories or political motivations: anyone who wants to know my political views is welcome to buy me a cup of coffee sometime and discuss them. My main concerns with Dirty Wars as a documentary are: Is it well-made? Is it informative? Does it attempt balance or is there a clear bias? And, perhaps most importantly, is it entertaining?
My first impression of the film is that the narrator, journalist Jeremy Scahill, comes across as more than a little pretentious. This is an impression that will later be reinforced by the film itself: there’s quite a bit of pretension to go around. There’s definitely a sense that Scahill and director Rick Rowley know that they’re telling an important story: hell, we know that, too. Similar to retro genre films that slavishly ape the look of older films without imitating the content or feel, however, Dirty Wars knows that it’s important and doesn’t want the audience to ever forget the fact. From Scahill’s hushed narration (which gets old fast) to the occasionally ominous cinematography and score, Dirty Wars is a film that projects such a serious air that it’s occasionally difficult to take it completely serious. Which is a shame, since there’s nothing light about the subject whatsoever.
Scahill, the journalist who originally broke the Blackwater scandal in Iraq, focuses his attention on the covert military actions run by the U.S. in not only Afghanistan and the Middle East but around the world. He uncovers plenty of damning evidence and stumbles across the super-secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) some time before it would later become famous for the successful military strike that killed Osama bin Laden. There are a number of interesting interviews, although the majority of the U.S. military figures involved tow the same professional line that one could find by watching a Good Morning America interview with the same.
Ultimately, my ambivalence towards Dirty Wars has nothing to do with the subject: nothing I saw changed my original viewpoint in any way, although there were a few moments that seemed to confirm things I’d often suspected. There were even a couple of moments that I found particularly powerful, such as the assertion by one official, regarding the JSOC, that “we’ve created one helluva hammer: now this hammer will spend a lifetime looking for a nail.” That certainly gives you something to think about. I was also enthralled by Scahill’s trip to Somalia, where he interviewed several local warlords. One, a particularly nasty character who also happened to be a U.S. ally, made the chilling assertion that “America are great war masters…they are great teachers.” Terrifying, especially when delivered with a lazy smile.
More than anything, I just found Scahill to be a bit too self-important and pretentious. There seemed to be a constant attempt to strive for greater and greater significance: I would rather find the significance than be told it’s there. By the hundredth or so time that Scahill whispered the equivalent of “I was in over my head and the walls were closing in,” I wanted to toss him a fedora and a bottle of scotch and tell him to just get on with it.