TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. January 25th is the third anniversary of the beginning of the demonstrations that ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The country is now being run by a military regime which ousted the democratically elected president and is now trying to revise the constitution as its top general prepares to run for president. The revolution and its aftermath are the subject of "The Square," a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim.
It opens in select cities on Friday when it will also premier on Netflix which acquired the film. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that it's a fascinating film that helped him understand why the Egyptian revolution just seems to keep going on and on.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A revolution is a bit like writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending. They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak - the crowning moment of the Arab Spring - the army's running the country again. The elected president Mohammed Morsi has been charged with treason. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned. And Tahrir Square's secular protestors are getting arrested.
All this in the name of order and country. You witness how we got to this point in "The Square," an engrossing, beautifully shot documentary by the Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim who grew up a few minutes from Tahrir Square. Working with a brave local crew from 2011 to 2013, she tells the story of the many demonstrations in the square - first again Mubarak, then against the brutal military regime that followed, then against the dictatorial Morsi and then against the brutal military regime that replaced him.
If, like me, you watched all this on TV the ongoing turmoil began to feel like a distant abstract blur. Noujaim takes us inside this history by centering on three protestors, each from a different background. There's fiery-sweet Ahmed Hassan, a young man who's been working since he was eight. There's camera-savvy Khalid Abdalla, the British-Egyptian actor who starred in "The Kite Runner," whose good English makes him a key link to Western media.
And then there's the film's most fascinating and ambivalent character, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was tortured by Mubarak's thugs but is no fanatic. He gets along with Ahmed and Khalid. Through them, Noujaim captures the ongoing drama that's unfolded in Tahrir Square, a saga filled with idealism, euphoria, disillusionment and danger.
Ahmed even takes army buckshot to the head. Here, over footage of demonstrators being beaten, Khalid explains why secularists like him won't participate in the 2012 election to eagerly embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SQUARE")
KHALID ABDALLA: I don't expect there to be elections. I am not going to go and vote while my friends are being killed in the streets. I have friends who've lost their eyes. I have friends who are at hospital in serious critical condition. I know people who have died.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
ABDALLA: I'm not going to go and pass my vote in these circumstances. This is an army that has tortured civilians, that has put 15,000 on military trial. On top of that, international governments, who I hold also complicit, to have replenished the stocks of bullets that are being shot at people right now, the tear gas that is clinging to my lungs. We own the future. These people out there are people of conscience.
They know what future they want to build and they know how to build it instinctively. We need to end that process. The army needs to step aside.
POWERS: Now, "The Square" is not a 360 degree portrait of recent Egyptian history. We don't get to know the hardliners in the Muslim Brotherhood and there are many of them who would die and are dying to create an Islamic state. Nor do we hear from the millions of ordinary people who are now sick of all the demos in Tahrir Square and want life to get back to normal.
Noujaim is consciously partial and clearly on the secularist's side. Yet the movie is no less gripping or revealing for that. As we're plunged into scenes of both ecstasy and violence, it's impossible not to be moved by the heroism of those who turned up in Tahrir Square, realizing this just might get them killed. I've never done anything remotely so brave in pursuit of my own freedom.
At the same time, we see the limits of Khalid and Ahmed's secular, left-leaning activism. The qualities it takes to topple a regime, including fearless passion and uncompromising single-mindedness, are the more coldblooded ones it takes to forge and enact a political agenda. Khalid may say that the demonstrators know instinctually what the people want, but power nearly always winds up in the hands for more practical opportunistic sorts like the Muslim Brotherhood or the army.
They don't mind getting their hands dirty. The military folks who Noujaim interviews clearly see most protestors as naive suckers. None of this turns "The Square" into a despairing or even downbeat movie. For all the setbacks, Noujaim and her heroes know that very few revolutions are actually velvet. They're drawn out and messy. And how could it be otherwise?
Watching Egypt on the news here in the U.S., it's easy to wonder why things are still so bad after three whole years. It's worth remembering that it took 16 years from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington. This may be another way of saying that Noujaim's film is less a final reckoning than an exciting bulletin from the frontlines of an unfinished revolution. I rarely say this about a movie, but I can't wait to see the sequel.
GROSS: John Powers if film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com.