This was my first screening so far of the Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal and I can safely say that it was fantastic way to start.
First, a word on the festival:
Since 1998, the RIDM has been bringing filmmakers from Quebec, and from around the world, to the city of Montreal for about a ten-day span to expose their work to eager audiences and also to hold small workshops. While this is my first year attending the RIDM, one of the first things you notice is the collective atmosphere.
Before the beginning of the film, the large audience was greeted by a representative, first apologizing for the director’s absence (apparently this film is in the process of becoming almost unmanageably popular and she was needed elsewhere but was really sad not to make it), and secondly inviting us all to a party. Apparently partying and hanging out with the directors is a big part of the overall experience. Hey, I’m all for that.
Another quick, coup-d’oeil observation is the fantastic selection. While there is an emphasis on Quebecois and Canadian directors, it is truly a worldwide collection of documentaries. Now, obviously, I’m going to hit all the Caribbean and African films so stay tuned.
A pretty big sell for me is that, thanks to funding from the National Film Board of Canada (by the way, USA, what the crap, you don’t have a national film board? This is amazing! Dude, in Canada, the government will FUND your intelligent social commentary in the form of film. Do you even, like, … Canada, do you get how awesome it is to BE YOU???) … okay, like I was saying, thanks to the NFB, students and seniors can attend all matinees for free, y’all. Free. Amazing…
On to the film…
The Square covers the events of the last two years in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. (a. protests on Tahrir Square, b. fall of Mubarak, c. military rule, d. unrest between Muslim Brotherhood and non-Islamist protestors, e. election of Morsi, f. protests against Morsi on June 30th 2013 – possibly the biggest protest ever seen in the entire world). The official summary of this movie claims that the “square itself becomes the central character of the film,” but there are some fairly strong human characters who carry the story as well. I would say the success of this “cast” of characters is that they all function as representatives of various ideologies that come together in a overarching view that the people of Egypt should be free. There’s Ahmed, the young idealist artist who is a kid when the filming begins and who we watch grow up over two years. There’s Khalid, the intellectual, westernized, secular democracy promoting dude from The Kite Runner, and Magdy, the conservative friend of both, who is really the most interesting driving force of the film, because he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but is divided from the party that supports Morsi because of his fairly conservative views.
I don’t think there is a lot I can bring to an understanding of this film, but I did want to comment that what the film accomplishes so successfully, and what Jehane Noujaim is so brilliantly adept at (have you seen Control Room for example) is this ability to work within chaos, and to let chaos happen in the form of film – which is generally supposed to have a beginning, middle, climax, end – and yet to draw certain graspable points. I would say I’m a fairly average audience member. I don’t have any special knowledge of Egypt (outside of those couple of years of classical Arabic classes during my MA…so…yeah…nothing…) ; neither am I particularly well-versed in political science. You know, I read Karen Armstrong’s book on Islam, and I kept up with the news over the last couple of years and that’s it. But this film gave a revolution that is still happening a kind of cohesive narrative while yet creating the feeling of being utterly immersed in the mire with the protesters.
My other comment has to do with the audience (because that’s the most interesting part of seeing a film in the theater) which was – hey – Quebecois. Islam is a fairly charged thing in this province, what with the recently proposed Charter of Quebec Values which wants to forbid all obvious signs of religion in the government workplace. Psssssst, this means – almost exclusively – the hijab. Quebec has an interesting relationship to religion in general – being highly secularized and yet simultaneously highly culturally Catholic and no, I still have not quite figured out how that works. But the relationship it has to religions other than Catholicism is even more so. (See recent proposed turban ban.) It was a somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere when the Muslim Brotherhood steps onto the stage, both in the narrative, and on the Square itself. This short intake of breath and ever so slight whisper. The film solidly portrays Morsi’s supporters as “the bad guy” but it takes a bit of development – particularly through the detailing of this group cooperating with the military in order to gain power. They become bullies. That’s the narrative thread. But in this audience, I think the film needed to do very little convincing and that’s troubling. There were beautiful, large-scale shots of prayer on Tahrir Square, and you could sort of feel a grimace trickle through the seats.
(If you are reading this, and you live here in Quebec, and you think I’m totally wrong, and you want to tell me about it, I welcome your comments. I’m not pronouncing anything, but from my limited time and interaction and fairly active news reading/listening there is enough of a religiously based xenophobia in this province to make watching a film such as this one an interesting experience.)
So, go see the film. It is incredible. It has already won the audience award at Sundance and Toronto, and it is deserving of your attention. Here is the website so that you can hopefully find a screening near you.