Filmmaker and archaeologist Stefano Savona arrived in Cairo on January 29, 2011, and proceeded almost immediately to the heart of Egypt’s revolution. The Middle Eastern nation’s uprising had been going at full steam for nearly four days at the time of Savona’s arrival, which was long enough to inundate Cairo’s Tahrir Square with demonstrators: tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of cheering, chanting, marching, debating, voice-losing, gleeful Egyptian citizens who realized seemingly en masse the narcotic power of open political discourse. Tahrir, of course, is where Savona ended up.
Tahrir: Liberation Square is a unique and gripping take on a narrative that’s familiar to anyone who has followed recent news out of the Middle East. Keeping things mostly at street level and armed with only a small digital camera, Savona follows events as they unfold, never shying away from chaotic scenes nor trying to make sense of them. Instead, he offers a roiling, you-are-there look at the revolution and its participants.
The film captures the fervor of Egypt’s revolutionary elements, and the streaming-forth of sloganeering, discourse, and bold declaration is almost unceasing. This is especially true of Mona, Elsayed, and Ahmed, the three young Egyptians Savona visits at various points throughout the film. Plunging headlong into the uprising, these three revolutionaries provide sophisticated political debate, despite how thoroughly they had been suppressed under the Mubarak regime. They discuss the commitment of various sects, the efficacy of the revolutionary elements, and the trustworthiness of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood group. They all agree, though, that Mubarak must be forced out.
Savona and his single camera do an impressive job of keeping things on an intimate scale while still capturing the full sweep of the uprising. He is able to suss out some riveting moments that are perhaps unique to his rendering of events in Egypt. For instance, Savona finds uncanny, chilling intimacy in the intense, largely silent labor that goes into breaking up paving stones to use as projectiles in street fights; the same goes for the moment when a group of captured pro-Mubarak fighters admit that they have been paid off by the regime. If a few parts of the film feel a bit roughly sketched (the moment when Mubarak finally steps down seems even anticlimactic), well, Savona can hardly be faulted for not being able to be everywhere at once.
Tahrir is gritty, to be sure, but at times it affects an almost hallucinatory quality. The film often has the air of a half-remembered trance, with even its scenes of street clashes suffused with a muted haze. One can only speculate if this was intentional on Savona’s part, especially since the film was basically shot on the fly. Certainly, the director is aware that the events must have seemed fantastical to the uprising’s participants. Where but in their wildest dreams could something like the events of 2011 ever have occurred?
It is also possible that Savona knows he has documented what amounts to a feverish reverie. As of this writing, post-revolutionary Egypt is set for a presidential runoff election between a former power player in the Mubarak government and a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood — a striking blow to the revolutionaries (including some featured in this film) who had hoped for a secular Egypt free from the influence of any remnants of the Mubarak regime. Both Egypt’s current state of affairs and the political realities that perhaps made it inevitable are topics that Savona does not explicitly address in Tahrir. His focus remains on the streets, presenting the story of the Egyptian uprising from that angle. It’s fascinating, though, to see how neatly Mona, Elsayed, and Ahmed illustrate the difficulties of the uprising. They are all passionate about seeing Mubarak forced out, but beyond that, things unravel. They can’t agree on how to proceed, or on who can be trusted. There is little consensus among them, let alone organization. It is clear how their lack of political acumen and longstanding inability to organize will hurt them in the long run. What is even more clear in hindsight is how dishearteningly likely it has become that they will look back on the events of the winter of 2011 as merely some wonderful dream.