Oscar Nominated Documentary ‘The Square’ Takes on Political Life of Its Own

This was probably the only Oscar-nominated film watched behind the barricades in Kiev

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Courtesy of Karim Amer

'The Square' gets screened in early February in Kiev.

The much-acclaimed documentary The Square enters Oscar weekend as a lead contender in the Best Documentary category. I wrote at length about it here in October—the film is a wrenching chronicle of the tumult that preceded and followed Egypt’s 2011 revolution, narrated through a clutch of charismatic protesters. Drawing on footage taken by some 40 Egyptian videographers, The Square celebrates the euphoria of the revolution, the commitment and bravery of diehard activists and casts a cold eye at both the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood—powerful institutions that each took their turn exploiting what was unleashed by Egypt’s upheaval. The film has received rave reviews and merits its Oscar buzz.

But The Square is also making a mark worlds away from Hollywood’s shimmering gowns and red carpets. Though stymied by Egyptian censors, pirated copies of the film have been circulating for months in Egypt. This week, its director Jehane Noujaim announced that The Square is available for free over YouTube to all Egyptian viewers. “We were finally able to make it happen. So here it is,” the filmmakers said in a written statement posted online. “Hopefully we can watch it together in the square soon.” They were referring to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the physical and spiritual ground zero of Egypt’s political turmoil since the ousting of entrenched dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

That mooted screening in Tahrir, though, will hardly be the first instance where dissidents gather to watch the film. Earlier this month, Ukrainian protesters braved sub-zero temperatures in Kiev’s Maidan square and saw a dubbed version of the movie. The viewing took place amid escalating tensions between the opposition camped out in Maidan—the Ukrainian word for “square” derived conveniently from Arabic—and the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. Like the demonstrators massed in Tahrir in 2011, those occupying the Maidan had built their own makeshift “city within a city,” reported TIME’s correspondent Simon Shuster, digging in for a long struggle with the authorities.

“Even though the local fights are different, the images in Kiev and Cairo were the same,” says Karim Amer, The Square‘s producer, who beamed into the cold Kiev night on a Skype call. The sense of solidarity between Maidan and al-Midan was real, he says: “The conversations are almost identical. They come from all kinds of different backgrounds. They don’t trust the media to communicate their message. They’ve looked at death in the eyes. They’ve lost fear.”

In the days that followed, the courage of the Maidan shone through as the protesters, massed behind ad hoc barricades and walls of flaming tires, withstood the offensives of the security forces. Dozens died, but it was Yanukovych who blinked first in the standoff—stepping down last week and later fleeing to Russia. The Maidan had triumphed.

But like in Egypt, the victory is only fleeting. Already, the groups that presented such a united front at the Maidan show signs of division and rancor. What began as a liberal uprising risks being co-opted by uncompromising extremist groups—a familiar narrative to those in The Square. Like in Egypt, the political forces forming the new, fragile status quo in Kiev are all too familiar with the corridors of power. And like in Egypt, the disastrous state of Ukraine’s economy means further instability and mounting public frustration could reverse the dissidents’ gains.

For understandable reasons, the idealism of The Square has been deemed “naive” by some. Three years after the toppling of Mubarak, the country appears on the verge of choosing another military strongman as President after having swept aside its only fairly elected President in a coup that led to hundreds of deaths, arrests and a relentless crackdown on independent journalists and Egyptian Islamists. The heroes of the The Square may have brought about an epochal change, but they appear helpless to control it.

The filmmakers say such criticisms miss the point. “The Egyptian revolution is a dance, it’s a few steps forward, it’s a a few steps backwards,” says Amer. The Square‘s protagonists are in the struggle for the longterm and haven’t failed just because their vision of a just, democratic society is not in sight, he says. “We grew up in an Egypt where people felt no agency over their future,” says Noujaim, the director. “People power did have an effect. It was a genie that was let out of the bottle.”

The film—which has also been screened before protesters in Istanbul and Caracas as well—is “a love letter to the people fighting for change,” says Noujaim. It’s an act of witness, now global in scale. “When we zoom out, we can see beyond borders, we can see we are interconnected,” says Amer. That sense of community may give strength as Kiev and Cairo’s revolutionaries contemplate the challenges to come.