"We are now living in the state of Tahrir," jokes Ahmed Hassan, a mirthful 20-something protester, nearly six decades later.
Hassan is the buoyant main protagonist of Jehane Noujaim's new documentary about Egypt's 2011 uprising, "The Square," which was nominated for an Academy Award on Thursday — the country's first.
In many ways, Hassan is emblematic of the young Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11 of that year, when protesters — aided by the army — brought down President Hosni Mubarak, their ruler for 29 years.
Hassan's mother is an illiterate vegetable vendor from a poor part of Cairo's Shubra neighborhood. As the film begins, he recalls how he sold lemons on the street as a child to pay for school. Like many who came of age during the crony capitalism of Mubarak's Egypt, he arrives in Tahrir after holding a series of odd jobs, having worked as a cook and a house cleaner despite his associate's degree in journalism.
Reporters who covered the uprising met hundreds of young men like Hassan. But he especially seems to embody the moment. Witty and puckish, he's a baby-faced revolutionary philosopher, by turns reflective and pugnacious. He is euphoric when protests are at their height and despondent when they seem to fail, chanting and orating to the crowds until his voice goes hoarse. Like many who occupied the square, he is also idealistic to the point of naivete, infuriated by anyone's efforts to turn the revolution into political gain.
When the Muslim Brotherhood — a conservative 86-year-old charitable and proselytizing movement and the country's best-organized political force — begins negotiating with the military, which assumed power after Mubarak's fall, Hassan and his friends are outraged by what they see as cynical maneuvering conducted while their comrades are still dying in the streets.
Later, with the Brotherhood decimated and the military ascendant again — and after a majority of the film has detailed how soldiers abused protesters and disdained their democratic ambitions — he earnestly wonders if "the army will act in the same way it did."
The answer, we know, is yes. Last July, the military deposed Mohamed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president and a Brotherhood member. In August, security forces killed more than 1,000 people who gathered in two main Cairo squares to protest his removal — the worst such violence in Egypt's modern history.
The Brotherhood has been effectively banished from public life, and even some of the uprising's best-known secular figures — such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, who appears for a split second in the film — have been charged with crimes or thrown into prison in a wave of repression that human rights groups have called worse than any crackdown under Mubarak.
"The Square," at 95 minutes long, does not make much time for this competing narrative. Though Noujaim re-edited the film in 2013, after its festival debut, to account for the coup against Morsi, she addresses the killing of his supporters only in a few brief YouTube clips, followed by a title card stating that "hundreds" died. The film concludes with Hassan, who expresses hope that the uprising has birthed "a society of consciousness" that no government can again repress. It gives little indication that matters are about to get worse.
By aligning itself with Hassan and his fellow secular activists, "The Square" — which is fast becoming one of the most influential accounts of the uprising outside of Egypt — takes on much of their idealistic and naive attitude, at the expense, some would argue, of the truth.