Although it just picked up a very rightfully deserved nomination for Best Documentary today for the Oscars, Jehane Noujaim’s harrowing, intelligent, and astoundingly complex look at the inner workings of the Egyptian revolution told by the people living it is just exceptional filmmaking of any kind. The Square dares to get close to both dangerous conversations and violent, obviously life threatening conflicts with a degree of bravery that few filmmakers have ever matched over entire careers, let alone single films.
From the beginnings of Egyptian unrest against the Mubarak regime with protests in Tahrir Square in February of 2011 through to a third government being removed largely via public outcry in the summer of 2013, Noujaim follows several citizens and their roles in the revolution. Youthful idealist and central figure Ahmed Elkashef grows weary and exhausted of trying to keep up with the government’s empty promises of handing power back to the people and the eventual rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to political power after Mubarak’s fall, an organization that the young man once stood side by side with in the square only to have them appoint a zealot ruler that appointed himself with even more unchecked power and declared himself Egypt’s new pharaoh. Actor Khalid Abdalla acts as the face of the revolution on worldwide television, but he’d much rather be out on the front lines. Magdy Ashour has an uneasy alliance with his own backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, first acting as an ally to his freedom fighting friends and then as an uneasy defender of his own religion after the group installs a new and even worse regime in its place. All the while, the struggles of the people at large try to remain non-violent in the face of a militaristic power system determined to cling to power by any means necessary. Just as bad: no one outside the country ever really felt the need to cover it as a real story.
Noujaim often puts herself in harm’s way throughout the film, and never wavers in the face of danger to make sure the story gets told. From being fired on with live rounds when being forced out of a public place known for being a place of public pride and dignity to capturing disgusting footage of Christian protestors literally being run over by military vehicles crashing into crowds at full speed, Noujaim never shies away from the ugliness of revolution, but she’s also underlining why it’s necessary in the first place. It’s brave, gorgeously shot, and intensely nuanced filmmaking that’s able to deftly balance the personal stories of these people who want to better their country with a comprehensive, overarching view of what it is they’re exactly up against.
It’s like watching a chess match that goes on for years between a government and the people it half-heartedly says it wants to protect. Everyone is flawed in their own way (especially the absolutely abominable attitude of a pro-government soldier who cavalierly dismisses the revolutionaries as ignorant), and no one really knows what the right course of action is. The only thing these people know for certain is that they desperately need change. It’s a sprawling work of courage and patience, and one of the best films ever made about personal struggle on a grand scale. It’s almost impossible to watch without being deeply affected by it in some way, and well deserving of all the praise that’s been placed upon it thus far.
Director Jehane Noujaim will be conducting Skype Q&As following the 6:30pm screening on Friday, January 17th and the 9:15pm screening on Saturday, January 18th.
Borne from director John Walker’s lifelong love and his youthful infatuation with “Eskimo” culture and artwork, this disarmingly poignant look at First Nations families relocated decades earlier with hopes of establishing Canadian sovereignty in the literal Great White North balances the personal and the political with great and subtle dexterity.
From his own childhood, a working trip to Resolute Bay in his teens, and his current inquiry into the formation of Nunavut and other northern First Nations communities, Walker brings a genuine engagement to his examination into the lives of people who were relocated simply to act as placeholders. These are people who in many cases are making the absolute best of their situations (with many people being talked to acting shockingly happy and in many cases optimistic), and who starting in 1968 were placed there as human flags starting in instead of actually being there for a legitimate reason.
That’s all intriguingly fleshed out and informative enough, but the real heart of the film comes from talks with Oo Aqpik and various other titular “defenders” of the Inuit culture who created lands and communities in their own image as a way of rejecting the reasons Canadians wanted a presence in the North in the first place. It’s the rare example of a personal documentary, made by an outsider, that isn’t condescending or cloying. Walker goes the extra mile to show the human side of arctic living without sugar coating the past.
Director John Walker will be on hand for Q&As following the 9:00pm showing on Friday, January 17th and the 12:30pn showing on Sunday, January 19th.
Also at The Bloor this week:
The Bloor’s Essential Docs series this week chooses to focus on the depressing, but also incredibly influential and chronically undervalued On the Bowery, screening Sunday, January 19th at 5:30pm and Monday, January 20th at 8:45pm. A look at post-war poverty in the then incredibly sketchy and dirty Bowery of New York City, filmmaker Lionel Rogosin would become the first ever American to take home a documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1956. It’s an unflinching look at Ray Salyer, an everyday, underemployed man simply drinking his cares away over the course of three days. One of the best addiction narratives to ever hit the screen, Rogosin looks not only at the addict as a human being, but the circumstances that can create one and allow the vice to become all encompassing. The film also screens with The Perfect Team, a 2009 making-of documentary that’s almost as long as the feature itself that looks into the difficulties surrounding the films construction and release, and the somewhat mysterious and potentially tragic life of its subject after the film’s release.
Tim Cawley’s From Nothing, Something: A Documentary on the Creative Process has a special screening (with the director in attendance) on Monday, January 20th at 6:30pm. A fun, anecdotal look at what drives the creative spirit, Cawley takes a refreshingly broad look at different creative processes and mediums and the people driven to make something out of nothing. Conducting interviews with various composers, musicians (including Tegan & Sara’s Sara Quin), writers (Little Children novelist and screenwriter Tom Perrotta), comedians (Maria Bamford), fashion designers, sculptors, game designers, visual effects supervisors, and even cancer researchers at MIT, Cawley looks at his subjects’ youthful inspirations, hard work, successes, failures, and hard work with a joyous tone that celebrates the power of imagination in all forms. Anyone who has ever had a sudden burst of creative inspiration will be sure to have a lot of fun with this one.
Although it didn’t secure a nomination for Best Foreign Film, the Toronto Ekran Polish Film Festival is hosting a screening of Poland’s selection for the Oscars, Walesa, Man of Hope on Saturday, January 16th at 6:00pm. The film from Academy Award winning director Andrzej Wajda tells the story of former president of Poland and common man revolutionary Lech Walesa. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.
Opera lovers now have another venue to watch some of the greatest productions in the world (if they would rather avoid Cineplex), as The Bloor hosts a screening of the Paris Opera’s 2013 production of AIDA on Saturday, January 18th at 1:30pm.
Oh, and Alan Zweig’s still pretty darned great When Jews Were Funny returns for yet ANOTHER single screening on Thursday the 23rd at 6:30pm! Because, why not?