Millions of people took part in last year’s so-called “Arab Spring,” arguably the most fundamental global political transformation since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Beginning in Tunisia, and spreading to as many as seventeen Arab countries, the revolution reached a critical point with the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, the region’s largest nation. Since then, Libya’s dictatorship came to an end, and Syria continues to be in the thralls of horribly violent civil unrest. Several documentaries are now being released about the uprising, many focusing on ground zero for the protests, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which I examine in my latest Docutopia column, “Tahrir Square on Film.” But I wonder, aside from a few North American critics, who will be watching them in the West?
The numerous documentaries released about the war in Iraq, which many Americans had a distinct and personal investment, didn’t exactly make waves with the public, as I once reported for Salon (“Yanks Nix Iraq Pix“). So you have to wonder how this faraway revolution in the Arab world will play out with U.S. audiences? I think the films are good, from the kinetic, visceral and impressionist experience of Stefano Savona’s “Tahrir: Liberation Square” to Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim’s intimate and harrowing “1/2 Revolution.” But like most political docs, they’re going to a tough sell. And with more and more docs about the subject, it’s going to be very possible that audiences will burn out quickly.
Perhaps the biggest test of the Arab Spring docs will be The Weinstein Co’s release of “The Oath of Tobruk,” a personal account of the Libyan uprising by writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, which offers a robust defense of Western military intervention in Libya, and calls for the same aggressive intervention in Syria. With a Western figure at its center, and the Weinsteins promoting it, the movie probably has the best chance of any for raising awareness about the continuing plight of those seeking freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. We’ll just have to see.