January 13, 2014
Guest: Sonia Sotomayor
TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Like most sitting Supreme Court justices, my guest Sonia Sotomayor is circumspect when talking about the court. But, as she puts it, I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court. Her memoir, "My Beloved World," became a bestseller when it was published last year. It's just come out in paperback, which is the occasion for our interview.
The book is about growing up poor in the South Bronx; living with a chronic disease, juvenile diabetes; being raised by a single mother after her father, who was an alcoholic, died; and struggling to get a good education in spite of the odds. A cousin she was very close to became a heroin addict and died of AIDS. The book ends with the U.S. Senate confirming her nomination to the District Court for the Southern District of New York, becoming the first Hispanic federal judge in the state's history.
In the epilogue, she describes taking the oath of office for the Supreme Court, becoming the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the court. Justice Sotomayor, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such an honor to have you on our show. So before we start, before we really get going, explain to us what is off-limits to you as a sitting justice, the kinds of things that you would decline to discuss on our show.
JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: Terry, I believe that the public's perception of a justice is impacted negatively if a justice opines on issues that are before the court or issues that are likely to come before the court. The reason for this is we decide cases based on the arguments parties raise. And to the extent that we come to our decision-making with preconceived notions about an issue, the public rightly has a perception that we may have prejudged the question.
And so I'm very, very careful and don't answer questions relating to pending cases or cases that might come before the court.
GROSS: And what about the topic of decisions you've already voted on?
SOTOMAYOR: I don't tend to talk about them because, and this is more personal, sometimes I will talk about an issue in terms of giving its background, but my own feeling is that my opinions are pretty clear in explaining in why I voted one way or another, and none of my colleagues are shy about stating those views and the reasons for those views.
GROSS: So you've told us some of the things you decline to talk about. As you point out in your own memoir, you have ventured to write more intimately about your personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court. Why have you chosen to do that?
SOTOMAYOR: When I was nominated by the president for this position, it became very clear to me that many people in the public were interested in my life, in the challenges I had faces, in the difficulties I had overcome. And I also realized that much of the public perception of who I was and what had happened to me was not quite complete. It was based more on assumptions rather than realities.
And I also knew that if I permitted those assumptions to continue, they would take on a life of their own.
GROSS: What are some of the false assumptions you think people had about you?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, the very first moment in which I started to think about writing a book happened during an interview my first term on the court. It was within months of being placed on the court. I was doing an interview, and the interviewer asked me how my happy life had affected my success. And I had to pause because I thought about that question, and I hadn't really perceived myself as having had a traditionally happy childhood.
And I realized that what the public had seen during my nomination was a very big reality of a big closeness to my mother and my other members of my family. But what the public had not realized was how hard we had worked to come to that point and that it wasn't filled with just an easy road of happiness, that it was filled with challenges and difficulties that we had to overcome as a family.
GROSS: Your book had me right at the start, where at age 6 your parents are fighting over who should inject you with your insulin shot because you'd just been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. And describe that scene for us.
SOTOMAYOR: The first day out of the hospital, I wake up that morning to the arguments of my parents. Now that unfortunately was not something new, but this time the argument was about me, and it made me very uncomfortable. They were fighting about who was going to give me the first shot that morning. My father was saying my mother was a nurse, so she should do it. My mother in turn was telling my father that he had to learn how to do it.
And I realized that if I relied on them, I would have no opportunity to stay with my grandmother, who I adored, because I knew that she would be incapable, if my father was, that she would be incapable of giving me this shot. And so I what I did was I dragged over a chair from the kitchen table to the stove, and I started putting water in the pot.
This was in the age in which you had to sterilize syringes. There weren't plastic syringes yet or disposable syringes. And so I had to learn how to boil the water and then let it cool off and then discard the water and put the needle together. But at any rate, my mother watched what I was doing and looked at me and said, Sonia, what are you doing.
I said I'm going to do this myself. And she walked over, and she said let me show you how. And she then walked me through lighting the stove, and she explained how long, again, I had to wait for the water to boil to put the syringe in and then how long to wait for the water to cool off.
At that moment, nodding my head, I watched very carefully what she was doing, waited the required time, which seemed an eternity. I understood at that moment why a watched pot never boils. At any rate...
GROSS: So, but can I just point out you were six. So most kids that age are still afraid to go to the doctor and get a shot. And here you are, because you need an injection every day, learning how to inject yourself. And you write in the book that the pain of the needle wasn't as bad as listening to your parents argue. And you write also that having juvenile diabetes inspired in you a kind of precious self-reliance that's not uncommon in children who feel the adults around them to be unreliable.
So you add it all up, and it sounds like, you know, self-injecting was a real - learning how to do that was a real turning point in your life and assumed this almost like metaphoric value in your life.
SOTOMAYOR: Well, I'm hesitating, Terry, because I don't know that I identified it that way. I don't know that I think about it that way. When I chose it as the opening scene of my book, I chose it because it was reflective of so many elements of my life. But was it metaphorically a starting point? I think I tried to describe how all of the factors in my life up to that point led me to that moment, to that ability to do something that most children might not have chosen to do.
But I don't know that it was, that I perceived it myself as a turning point, although I do perceive the diabetes and its diagnosis was a turning point in my life.
GROSS: Your mother was a nurse. So she knew about what the consequences of juvenile diabetes could be.
SOTOMAYOR: At the time, the consequences were fairly dire. This was the very, very early stages of diabetic treatment. I shouldn't say early stages of treatment. Insulin had been around for a while, but the early stages of the further developments that happened during my life that made the care of diabetes more precise, and where - and before the discovery and use of better insulins that created less side effects.
When I first started using insulins, they were byproducts of animals, and insulin secreted by calf, sheep and things of that nature. And needless to say, with natural medications you have variants, and you have byproducts that can cause their own diseases.
And so my life expectancy when I was diagnosed was not very long, and the probabilities of long-term complications was very, very high.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and she has a memoir, which was a bestseller in hardback, and now it's out in paperback. It's called "My Beloved World." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and her memoir, "My Beloved World," is now out in paperback. You had a cousin who was a heroin addict. And you ask yourself in your book, you know, how did you succeed in the way you did when he became an addict in the way he did. And you thought he was very smart, and you basically had the same kind of upbringing in the same neighborhood. What conclusions have you come to about that?
SOTOMAYOR: I think there's always a discussion about nature versus nurturing. But I do believe that it's always a combination of the two that impact what happens to a person. For me, I was blessed, unlike my cousin Nelson, with being a girl. My family was more protective of me. I wasn't permitted to play outside alone.
It was a different world for the boys in the family. They were permitted to go out, and given the neighborhood and the temptations in it, it would've been, I think, even different for me if I had not been protected in the way Nelson wasn't.
I also think that each child has to have within them a desire to achieve something. And for me, my initial goals were just to graduate from college, because nobody in my family had done it. But the idea of having a mark that I wanted to achieve helped me. Nelson couldn't find that in his life.
He loved being a musician. Regrettably, his father wanted him to be a doctor. And their dreams clashed, and I think Nelson never found the support that he needed to give reality to his dreams.
GROSS: So your cousin Nelson, your late cousin Nelson, who died of AIDS, was a heroin addict. Your father was an alcoholic, and that was a cause of a lot of the fighting between your parents. He died when he was 42 and when you were nine. And I don't know if you consider this question off-limits or not, but has it been helpful in your career as a judge and now as a Supreme Court justice to have had people you were, you know, so close with, members of your family, who had problems with addiction, drugs or alcohol?
There are so many legal decisions and - you know, pertaining to the use and the sale of drugs and the treatment of people, you know, like punishment versus medical treatment of people who have addiction problems. And, you know, many people have no firsthand observation of that. And you do. So I'm wondering if that's been helpful as a judge.
SOTOMAYOR: I think that my experiences as a child and my experiences as they impacted me growing up was coming to an understanding that good people do bad things. I watched my father, who I knew loved me, kill himself with alcohol. I watched a cousin whom I adored, who I thought of as my soulmate as a child, he was closer to me than my brother was at the time, I watched this person, who had an enormous talent and a great intelligence, and yet I watched him destroy himself and affect his family with a great deal of pain by ultimately killing himself with drug use.
That has always permitted me to do two things as a judge, first to understand that the people who came before me as defendants were human beings with good and potentially very bad things within them. And it was not unusual for defendants to have families who depended on them, who loved them, who thought the world of them, even though they had done horrific things.
Now, your question, Terry, suggested did it make me more sympathetic or more lenient towards defendants because of this recognition. I actually don't think so. And so as a judge, I actually was quite surprised at one point in my career when I was being nominated to the court of appeals, I was asked for the Senate to give them a record of how often I had departed from the then-mandatory sentencing guidelines.
And judges were permitted, under certain circumstances, to depart downward, give a lesser sentence, or depart upperwards, give a higher sentence than the guidelines called for. And I was shocked to find that I gave less downward departure, lesser sentences, and more greater sentences than the national average.
I wasn't aspiring to the statistic. It's just the way it was. I think that because of my experiences, however, I could treat that person in my courtroom as an individual and not as a non-entity and at the same time hold them responsible for their acts.
GROSS: Interesting. Thank you for talking about that. My guest is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and her memoir, "My Beloved World," has just been published in paperback. Your grandmother, you were very close to her. She was the adult in your life that you felt safest with when you were a child. And she had a deep belief in the spirit world and felt that she could communicate with it. I think she used to hold seances.
Your mother just thought that that was crazy superstition. This grandmother was your father's mother. And so you were kind of in the middle of this conflict between belief in the spirit world and, you know, opposition to that belief, debunking of that belief. Where did you fit in, and what did you think of your grandmother's beliefs?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, it was pretty funny. We as kids used to get a little bit scared by it and laugh at it. What they did was totally incomprehensible. The place I came to as an adult is a healthy respect. I don't believe, but I don't question anybody else's beliefs either.
SOTOMAYOR: I just stay away from that. No, I'm much too rational to believe in the other world that my grandmother did or to believe that they were actually communicating with the spirits, but she believed fervently. And there were unexplainable things that happened that she attributed to this power, but I have the same skepticism that my mother had. However, I'm very respectful of people who do believe.
GROSS: You went to Catholic school. What was your understanding of God as a child, being taught by nuns?
SOTOMAYOR: That he was a good figure. It's interesting. I actually took God's love as a given, that his intent was to help human beings become better people. It's one of the reasons that when people failed in showing God's love, like nuns or priests, that I would become upset at them because I thought that they more than others should be more cognizant of what God required of them.
GROSS: Did they give you a lot of cause to be upset?
SOTOMAYOR: I grew up in the generation before Gidget became the flying nun, OK?
SOTOMAYOR: At the time I was growing up, the attraction of Catholic schools was that they taught you discipline. They kept you out of trouble, and they did that by enforcing corporal punishment. It was a different era. It's not happening now. I'm sort of amazed. As you may or may not know, Terry, my grammar school closed last June. I was heartbroken. But I have spent time there during the years and knew that the school had become a very different place than the one I grew up in.
The teachers were so much more demonstrably caring than I was a child. When I was a child, caring for them was to ensure that you grew up right. And if that meant an occasional slap or an occasional hold your hand out and have a ruler swat against your hand, that's what happened. So they did give us quite a bit of reason not to think that God's love was something they fully understood.
GROSS: Justice Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be back in the second half of the show. Her bestselling memoir, "My Beloved World," has just been published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her best-selling memoir, "My Beloved World," was just published in paperback. She declines to discuss cases that have come before her as a justice, as well is issues she's likely to face. But she is forthcoming about her formative years, growing up poor with many disadvantages, including the chronic health problem juvenile diabetes.
You went to Princeton and to Yale Law School. When you got to Princeton, you realized some of the things that you didn't know existed before because you, you realized that you had grown up in a very kind of a circumscribed community. You grew up in, you know, in a pretty poor community. There were a lot of privileges that you didn't really know existed till you got there. What were some of the things that you didn't know about?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, I didn't know about children's classics. You know, my mother was pretty good at looking at the world around her and introducing us to things that she saw others doing. So one of the big things that kids were reading at the time was Dr. Seuss, and my mother actually got me some of the Dr. Seuss books. But she did know about some of the more traditional children's classics, like "Alice in Wonderland." And so it was one day talking to my first year roommate where I was telling her how out of place I felt at Princeton, how I didn't connect with many of the experiences that some of my classmates were describing. And she said to me, you're like Alice - in Wonderland. And I said, who's Alice? And at that point she looked and said, you don't know about "Alice in" - and I said, no, I don't. And she said it's one of the greatest book classics in English literature; you should read it.
Well, I recognized at that moment that there were likely to be many other children's classics that I had not read. And I - not perhaps in that episode, but before I went home that summer, I asked her to give me a list of some of the books she thought were children's classics. And she gave me a long list and I spent the summer reading them. That was perhaps the starkest moment of my understanding that there was a world I had missed of things that I didn't know anything about. And I talk about the book - in the book - about still feeling that way as an adult. There are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they're talking about and I have to go back and figure out what it is they meant, what allusion they're talking about culturally. That happens to me a lot now because I don't watch television, Terry. And so...
GROSS: You used to.
SOTOMAYOR: I used to watch it in...
GROSS: It's because of Perry Mason that you want to be a judge.
SOTOMAYOR: Oh, no, no. I used to watch when I was a kid, television incessantly. When I got to college I stopped. And I would say since I've become a judge I've just had less time to watch.
GROSS: Really? I'm shocked.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah. I see the news late at night when I get home, but I really can't follow any series or any other show with regularity, and there's a lot of popular TV shows that I know nothing about.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. You did mention that you have a "Sex and the City" ring tone.
SOTOMAYOR: Oh, I do. But I didn't know it was until people started hearing it and someone identified it for me.
GROSS: Oh, you did it because you just liked that song.
SOTOMAYOR: That's just - I just selected it because I liked it. Has a Latin beat to it.
GROSS: So when you were in Yale Law School, you didn't raise your hand in class until your third year. You're not shy. You're certainly not inarticulate. Why did it take you three years to raise your hand?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, first of all, you're assuming that who I am today I was back then.
SOTOMAYOR: And I don't know that I've ever been shy-shy, but I was a much more self-contained and less outgoing person in the earlier parts of my life. It took real effort for me to come out of some of the protective layers I had put on because of the difficulties in my childhood and some of the emotional withdrawal that I had to do to survive. It took a good part of my life to learn how to shed some of that and how to become a more people person. But I had some measure of self-confidence but not enough to feel secure among my very brilliant Yale classmates. Spent a whole lot of time in law school feeling inadequate and not quite sure that I measured up to the accomplishments of my classmates.
GROSS: What was the question you finally asked when you raised it?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, it had - it was a math question. My dad was quite skilled in math and he had taught me some math shortcuts and I think that that has something to do with my abilities in geometry and algebra. But at any rate, the professor was trying to explain this arcane rule called rules against perpetuity, which has to do with how far in the future...
GROSS: You can tell I'm in trouble here.
SOTOMAYOR: I know. It's a real legalese, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Maybe we should skip this. Yeah.
SOTOMAYOR: Yeah, but how far in the future you can leave your property to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - that's the essence of it.
SOTOMAYOR: But it's really a math problem.
GROSS: Right. OK.
SOTOMAYOR: Any did the math problem up on the board and I kept looking at it and realizing, this isn't quite right. So I raised my hand and said to him, Professor, didn't you tell us this was the rule? And he said yes. And I said well, your example doesn't fit the rule. And I walked him through it and he stood up there looking at the example and looked at it and looked at it and finally turned around and said to me, you're right. I've been teaching this for more than 20 or 30 years and I never realized that. At any rate, that did...
GROSS: Wow, and that was your first question and...
SOTOMAYOR: That was my first question.
GROSS: ...in the Yale Law School. That's great.
SOTOMAYOR: That was my first interchange volunteered with a professor.
GROSS: Well, I will say, you do have a reputation on the bench for asking tough questions.
SOTOMAYOR: Well, when I ask tough questions on the bench - and I think there's a bunch of lawyers who understand this - it's because I'm grappling with the tough issues in the case. And for me the tough question is an opportunity for the lawyer to give me the answer that will satisfy me, to give me the answer that makes sense. And I will push a lawyer to see how far their thesis holds up. It's not an attempt to embarrass the lawyer. It's an attempt for me to understand what their argument is. I never want to walk away from anything I do, but particularly from deciding a case without fully understanding every facet of it and ensuring that the lawyer has given me the best answer that they can about a legal issue.
GROSS: My guest is Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her best-selling memoir, "My Beloved World," has just been published in paperback. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC TO "SEX AND THE CITY")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her memoir, "My Beloved World," has just been published in paperback.
When you were in Yale Law School, law firms would come to do job interviews with students who were graduating. And you had such an interview with one of the law firms on campus. And the representative from this law firm started asking you about affirmative action and like, don't you think affirmative action is actually a bad thing for minorities because they get hired even though they're not qualified and then we just have to fire them a few years later. And you were just kind of outraged by some of the things that this person - this white man - was saying to you. And you decided instead of just stewing about it, to take some action. Tell us what you did and why you did it.
SOTOMAYOR: Terry, this man I met during a recruitment dinner. This partner elected to start the evening - which shocked me - with asking me how I had gotten into Yale. I was outraged by the fact that he asked that question without even seeing my resume - which I found incredibly presumptuous of him, and racist, frankly. Because if he had seen my resume, he might have learned that I had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude from Princeton, and that I had been selected for its highest award given to a senior, the Pyne Prize. He might also have noted some of the academic work I had done and some of the other ways that I had excelled. And so I found the conversation particularly naive because it did start from a presumption that I found questionable to start with, but which was uninformed.
And I get to your point - I did not make a scene that night and he was actually quite surprised by it when I confronted him the next day. And I explained to him that I had been taught manners by my mother and that that included not making others unnecessarily uncomfortable. I answered his questions as best as I could at the moment. Affirmative action as it existed when I was in school was an opportunity to bring kids into a race that they didn't even know was being run. People like me had no background in understanding the availability of places like Princeton. It was affirmative action that made places like Princeton reach into schools and other venues that they had never previously recruited from to try to find talented kids of different backgrounds who they would give the experience of Princeton to. I was fortunate that they went to my high school.
GROSS: You have been in several positions where you've been the first Latino to serve. And what - does that bring a sense of any like special responsibility or anything? Or - do you know what I'm saying?
SOTOMAYOR: I do. I think you have to - yes - you have to work harder. And in part by that question that man asked, in every position that I've been in there have been naysayers who don't believe I'm qualified or who don't believe I can do the work. And I feel a special responsibility to prove them wrong. And I think I work harder than a lot of other people because of that sense of responsibility.
Does it mean that I think that I have an obligation to any particular group including Latinos? No. My job is my job, and particularly being a judge, I would be doing a disservice to the Latino community if I ruled on the basis of a preference for any group, whether it's them or anyone else. I have to rule as I do on the basis of the law and of precedents and what the law commands me to do. But I do think I feel a special responsibility to work harder to prove myself because I am the first of a group that has been perceived as being incapable of doing whatever it is that I've had the benefit of becoming a part of.
GROSS: You write in your memoir about your marriage to the person who was really like your high school boyfriend, and you stayed together through college and then married. But you write that your relationship didn't evolve as your adult lives evolved, and so, you know, the marriage ended. You didn't remarry. You didn't have children. And you acknowledge in the book how difficult it is to balance both, you know, children and career, that many people do it. I'm just wondering, I think most women ask themselves what if, you know, what if they had taken like whatever course they didn't, whatever route they didn't take. Do you think you would have had the success that you've achieved if you had children too?
That's an impossible question to answer. And...
SOTOMAYOR: It is.
GROSS: And I know...
SOTOMAYOR: It's virtually an impossible question to answer...
SOTOMAYOR: ...because obviously because I didn't have children I've been able to devote my entire life to my career. And there have been moments where I've regretted that, by the way. And I spend most of my work life trying to find a balance in my personal life and sometimes I'm more successful than others. There are periods in which I'm totally consumed by work and then I pull back and try to get some sense of equilibrium back. I don't know that I can answer that question. It would be my hope that if I had chosen to have children that I would not have chosen to give up my career goals either, that I would've done what so many other working women do, which is to balance the two things in a way that wasn't perfect but would've given me expression in both realms.
There are obviously very, very successful women. There's two on my court...
SOTOMAYOR: ...who have children.
SOTOMAYOR: And so they managed it. I would've hoped I could have too. But it was a route that I didn't elect to take.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. Do you feel like you were the first generation for which it really was a choice? Both because of the changing norms that it was acceptable to be a single woman or to be, you know, a single or married and not have - you know, choose to not have a child? And there was effective birth control that could be used too. And so do you feel like you were among the first women who actually had a choice?
SOTOMAYOR: Well, to the extent that I was only the third class of women in Princeton. I don't think that women felt they had any choice. I don't think today they're still sure about that choice. This whole continuing question about whether women can have it all, I think it's the wrong question. I think the right question should be what makes you happy as a person? Do you want to try to have - not have it all but to have both in your life in an imperfect way?
Because if the question presupposes that you're going to do both and be equally happy at every moment, it's a false question. It's a compromise. It's a balance. It's figuring out what's the most important thing you have to give at that moment and to what. And all of that is a constant work in progress that creates a level of tension in a lot of working mothers that's very, very great.
I wish there were an equal amount of appreciation of that as of the choice that women have of whether they want to do that or not.
GROSS: You write in the book that when you were in the D.A.'s office in New York, that, sure, you know, you were on one side and the defense attorneys were on another, but you were friends and what you agreed on was the law and that the law should be followed. And you took opposite sides but the foundation was the law.
Now you're on the Supreme Court and, you know, same thing. The foundation is the law. But the judicial philosophies of the people on the bench are so widely on opposite sides in some cases that, you know, it's hard to say if you can even agree on what the law is because the interpretation of the law is so opposing.
And I'm wondering if you could address that at all about, you know, finding on controversial cases what it's like to - I don't even know what the debates are like or what the arguments are like, you know, among the justices themselves.
SOTOMAYOR: Well, what's very interesting is that those people read our opinions which can be, at moments, rather animated. An animated exchange in writing among the justices. And many people who read our opinions think we have to be at each other's necks constantly. It's interesting we're not. When we're talking about cases at our conference it's generally a conversation. It's really a talk about what our perspectives are and why we have reached the conclusions we've reached.
As we go around the room we're explaining our vote and we're attempting to persuade each other of the rightness of our views. Clearly, if you have a difference of approach you might not be able to shorten the gap between you. But at essence, the reason it can remain a conversation is that we have a fundamental respect for each other.
GROSS: Because you think it's best to not discuss decisions that you've voted on or decisions that have been or will be before your court. We have stayed away from that territory. Do you think if you ever step down from the bench that you would write a book and discuss those things? Or do you think it will be forever off limits to you?
SOTOMAYOR: I have no idea. You know, my colleague Justice Steven who's left the bench, has been writing prolifically about the issues that were important to him while he was a justice.
GROSS: He has not been holding his tongue.
SOTOMAYOR: Will I become like him or will I do a little bit of less of that? You know, I just got this job, Terry. I'm only here for five years. I can't predict what I'm going to do in the future.
GROSS: Well, Justice Sotomayor, thank you so much for talking with us.
SOTOMAYOR: Terry, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir "My Beloved World" has just been published in paperback. You can read the first chapter on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, John Powers reviews the documentary "The Square" about the drama that unfolded in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. January 25th is the third anniversary of the beginning of the demonstrations that ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The country is now being run by a military regime which ousted the democratically elected president and is now trying to revise the constitution as its top general prepares to run for president. The revolution and its aftermath are the subject of "The Square," a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim.
It opens in select cities on Friday when it will also premier on Netflix which acquired the film. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that it's a fascinating film that helped him understand why the Egyptian revolution just seems to keep going on and on.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A revolution is a bit like writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending. They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak - the crowning moment of the Arab Spring - the army's running the country again. The elected president Mohammed Morsi has been charged with treason. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned. And Tahrir Square's secular protestors are getting arrested.
All this in the name of order and country. You witness how we got to this point in "The Square," an engrossing, beautifully shot documentary by the Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim who grew up a few minutes from Tahrir Square. Working with a brave local crew from 2011 to 2013, she tells the story of the many demonstrations in the square - first again Mubarak, then against the brutal military regime that followed, then against the dictatorial Morsi and then against the brutal military regime that replaced him.
If, like me, you watched all this on TV the ongoing turmoil began to feel like a distant abstract blur. Noujaim takes us inside this history by centering on three protestors, each from a different background. There's fiery-sweet Ahmed Hassan, a young man who's been working since he was eight. There's camera-savvy Khalid Abdalla, the British-Egyptian actor who starred in "The Kite Runner," whose good English makes him a key link to Western media.
And then there's the film's most fascinating and ambivalent character, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was tortured by Mubarak's thugs but is no fanatic. He gets along with Ahmed and Khalid. Through them, Noujaim captures the ongoing drama that's unfolded in Tahrir Square, a saga filled with idealism, euphoria, disillusionment and danger.
Ahmed even takes army buckshot to the head. Here, over footage of demonstrators being beaten, Khalid explains why secularists like him won't participate in the 2012 election to eagerly embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SQUARE")
KHALID ABDALLA: I don't expect there to be elections. I am not going to go and vote while my friends are being killed in the streets. I have friends who've lost their eyes. I have friends who are at hospital in serious critical condition. I know people who have died.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
ABDALLA: I'm not going to go and pass my vote in these circumstances. This is an army that has tortured civilians, that has put 15,000 on military trial. On top of that, international governments, who I hold also complicit, to have replenished the stocks of bullets that are being shot at people right now, the tear gas that is clinging to my lungs. We own the future. These people out there are people of conscience.
They know what future they want to build and they know how to build it instinctively. We need to end that process. The army needs to step aside.
POWERS: Now, "The Square" is not a 360 degree portrait of recent Egyptian history. We don't get to know the hardliners in the Muslim Brotherhood and there are many of them who would die and are dying to create an Islamic state. Nor do we hear from the millions of ordinary people who are now sick of all the demos in Tahrir Square and want life to get back to normal.
Noujaim is consciously partial and clearly on the secularist's side. Yet the movie is no less gripping or revealing for that. As we're plunged into scenes of both ecstasy and violence, it's impossible not to be moved by the heroism of those who turned up in Tahrir Square, realizing this just might get them killed. I've never done anything remotely so brave in pursuit of my own freedom.
At the same time, we see the limits of Khalid and Ahmed's secular, left-leaning activism. The qualities it takes to topple a regime, including fearless passion and uncompromising single-mindedness, are the more coldblooded ones it takes to forge and enact a political agenda. Khalid may say that the demonstrators know instinctually what the people want, but power nearly always winds up in the hands for more practical opportunistic sorts like the Muslim Brotherhood or the army.
They don't mind getting their hands dirty. The military folks who Noujaim interviews clearly see most protestors as naive suckers. None of this turns "The Square" into a despairing or even downbeat movie. For all the setbacks, Noujaim and her heroes know that very few revolutions are actually velvet. They're drawn out and messy. And how could it be otherwise?
Watching Egypt on the news here in the U.S., it's easy to wonder why things are still so bad after three whole years. It's worth remembering that it took 16 years from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington. This may be another way of saying that Noujaim's film is less a final reckoning than an exciting bulletin from the frontlines of an unfinished revolution. I rarely say this about a movie, but I can't wait to see the sequel.
GROSS: John Powers if film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com.
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