Three films opening at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend demonstrate the power and pleasure of documentaries. “The Square” captures the raw force of Egypt’s ongoing revolution. “Elaine Stritch – Shoot Me” brings to life a legendary Broadway performer. “Tim’s Vermeer” explores how Dutch master Johannes Vermeer created such realistic paintings.
Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” takes its name from Tahrir Square, the focal point in Cairo for public protests that led to the resignation of 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. After the film won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was nominated there for a Grand Jury Prize, Ms. Noujaim returned to Egypt for another six months to continue filming the protests that filled Tahrir Square with thousands more Egyptians. The updated version of “The Square” was nominated for Best Documentary in the 2014 Oscars and won multiple other awards, including one for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild of America. It is the first Kickstarter film ever nominated for an Oscar. Kickstarter is a web-based fundraising site.
Combining professional, on-the-spot footage with cellphone video, the Harvard-trained Ms. Noujam organizes the film around the personal experiences of several Egyptians during the Arab Spring. Ahmed Hassan, a young man from a working class background, becomes the film’s most outspoken representative of the youthful demonstrators, who sought to replace government corruption and military rule with freedom and democracy. He is joined by Egyptian/British actor Khalid Abdalla, who starred in “The Kite Runner,” and Ramy Essam, the singer/songwriter whose music served as a rallying cry for protesters. Magdy Ashour, who was imprisoned and tortured during Mubarak’s regime, adds the viewpoint of the Muslim Brotherhood. Aida Elkashef uses her blog to convey information.
What makes “The Square” so compelling is the way it plunges the viewer into the midst of chaotic events as they unfold. First comes the euphoria that marks the end of Mubarak’s regime. After the Army takes over, Hassan and his cohorts face the realization that little has changed. They return to the Square, filling it with tents in protest until the Army forcibly clears the area. Thousands, including Essam, are imprisoned at the Egyptian Museum. But Essam insists, “As long as there is a camera, the revolution will continue.” “The Square” illustrates how powerful a weapon social media have become.
Although the revolution begins with Christians and Muslims united, by 2012 many protesters expressed anger at the Muslim Brotherhood for cooperating with the Army. Even Magdy shares his sense of conflict over Brotherhood actions. Once presidential elections are held on May 24, 2012, the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi is elected, then is quickly discredited once he insists on unchecked powers. In a July 2013 coup, military forces removed Morsi from office. Turmoil continues today: nine anti-government demonstrators were killed just a few months ago. As Abdalla observes, “There is no way the goals of the revolution can be achieved in two years.”
“Elaine Stritch––Shoot Me”
At 89, stage actress Elaine Stritch remains a force to contend with. Using the tools of cinéma vérité, first-time director Chiemi Karasawa creates a portrait of this lively performer that is both affectionate and honest. The film opens with Ms. Stritch half-striding, half-staggering down a Manhattan street dressed in fur coat and perky hat. The viewer is treated to photos of the actress with other celebrities, film excerpts from her long career, and candid moments from her appearance on the TV show, “30 Rock,” where she played Jack’s mother.
In her uniquely blunt way, Ms. Stritch announces that she’s a recovered alcoholic who’s decided, in her eighties, that one drink a day is okay. Plenty of celebrities and colleagues share their views on Ms. Stritch, including her musical director Rob Bowman, who helps keep her on track. She struggles with some of the physical problems that accompany old age, including short-term memory loss, diabetes, and sudden trips to the hospital, but nothing stops her from flaunting her million-dollar gams. The late James Gandolfini, who numbered among Ms. Stritch’s friends, confesses, “If we had both met when we were 35, we would have had a torrid affair that ended badly.”
Producer Hal Prince suggests that the convent girl is still there, despite her sometimes bawdy language and general hell-raising. “I’m getting older,” Ms. Stritch says, “but everybody is.” Performing is life for this actress, who won a 2002 Tony for her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and an Emmy in 2004 for her appearance on “30 Rock.” She speculates about buying a condo and retiring in 2014, or maybe 2015, or 2016, but the likelihood is that they’ll have to carry her off-stage feet first. Thanks to director Karasawa, Ms. Stritch will be around for a long time to come through this charming documentary.
In “Tim’s Vermeer,” Texas inventor Tim Jenison investigates the realist techniques of 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer. The film was not available for preview. Harthaven artist Andrew Moore will lead a discussion of photo-realist painting techniques after the screening of the film on Saturday, March 15. Mr. Moore, who works in watercolor, egg tempera, and oil, is well known for his meticulously detailed realist paintings of Martha’s Vineyard settings.
“The Square,” Friday, March 14, and Saturday, March 15, 4 p.m.
“Tim’s Vermeer,” Friday, March 14, Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, 7:30 p.m.
“Elaine Stritch––Shoot Me,” Sunday, March 16, 4 p.m.
All films at Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $12 (M.V. Film Society members, $9; 14 and under, $7). For information, see mvfilmsociety.com.