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by Robert Cameron Fowler
January 19, 2014 4:34 PM
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Sundance Review: Arab Spring Doc 'We Are the Giant' Is A Devastating Marvel

"We Are the Giant."

There is a moment in director Greg Barker’s documentary “We Are the Giant" when we are confronted by a young girl singing a sweet song of revolution in Arabic, while a peaceful protest against the Syrian government unfolds in the streets behind her. Her smile is wide and her voice lovely until a blast erupts no more than a yard behind her, the camera swerving as smoke billows and mangled figures lurch around in confusion. Perhaps mercifully, we never see what has become of the girl; within the same reel, there is another senseless massacre, as one man hoarsely shouts amidst a barrage of bullets, flanked by dead bodies. "It was peaceful!" he cries out, unable to understand what prompted the police to open fire.

There are many instances of that scar in Barker's remarkable documentary, an intensely moving account of the Arab Spring that focuses on the stories of prominent revolutionaries across three different countries: There is Osama Ben-Sadik, a Libyan man and Virginia-resident whose son, American-born Muhannad, leaves behind his life in the United States to join in the fight against Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria we meet Motaz Murrad and Ghassan Yazzin, leaders of peace movements, both of them convinced that non-violent protests could inspire reform in the Assad regime. Then there are sisters Maryam and Zainab AlKhawaja, who join their human activist father Abdulhadi AlKhawaja to fight against the dictatorship of the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain by utilizing pacifist methods.

Barker (with the aid of co-producer Razan Ghalayani, who shot footage in countries the filmmaker was barred from entering) intercuts the testimony of these revolutionaries with ample footage of protestors taking to the streets, information relayed through in-the-moment tweets (an appropriate flourish for covering a movement so aided by social media). The grainy footage, much of it caught in secret, contains unflinching displays of chilling violence as each dictator's forces attempt to squash the uprisings: bodies reduced to mannequins of ash in Libya, a missile streaking down from the sky to land on and decimating an entire neighborhood in Syria, a wounded protestor begging riot police for help only to be blown away at point-blank range by a shotgun. Some may argue that the inclusion of such footage has gratuitous overtones, but when viewed in context it registers as essential to understanding the peril that these people face on a daily basis.

Bookending each of the three segments – Libya and Syria are the first two entries, with Bahrain taking up the greater part of the documentary's 90-minute running time – is a kaleidoscopic overview of revolutions from throughout history. Images of Tiananmen Square and the African American Civil Rights Movement glide across the screen, all punctuated by quotations from transformational figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Far from overreaching, "We Are the Giant" implements the framing device organically, with the filmmakers’ idea for equating the Arab Spring with all of humanity’s great revolutions clearly born from how their subjects constantly reference those from history who inspired them to act. It turns material that could have resulted in a sporadic narrative into a profound statement that the Arab Spring is a continuation of humanity's constant efforts to make a better, more just world.

Heartbreak permeates the film, with the saddest moment arriving when Motaz, who dreamed for decades of non-violent reformation in Syria, , admits that the revolution he helped begin has spiraled into catastrophic bloodshed with no end in sight. As he struggles to repress his anguish, the boom of shelling reverberates throughout his location’s walls. But the film isn't unrelentingly bleak — quite the contrary, as it bursts at the seams with extraordinary feats of perseverance and selflessness. Perhaps the most remarkable arc is that of Zainab, who transforms from a young woman timid about joining the revolution for the sake of her newborn daughter to a leader who starves herself to the brink death in protest of her father’s incarceration and who refuses to run away as military forces brutalize protestors, sitting defiantly as she is beaten and berated.

"We Are the Giant” is both vital and devastating, with raw material conveyed through elegant construction. Barker asks the hard questions, issuing the frightening possibly of necessary violence when pacifism yields no results.

Criticwire Grade: A

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Contemporary relevance coupled with a sizable emotional wallop will make this a fast acquisition for a socially conscious distributor. Word of mouth will make for a likely strong limited release with a television-VOD rollout likely the best option for broad exposure.


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3 Comments

  • SrAzul | January 21, 2014 11:18 PMReply

    I saw this film tonight at Sundance. I a still thinking about it.

  • Manoora | January 20, 2014 1:10 AMReply

    Points to consider while watching “We are the Giant”

    Why equate Bahrain with Syria & Libya?

    This documentary falls victim to poor categorization in lumping Bahrain together with the anarchic situation in the strife-torn “Arab Spring” states. Bahrain bears no resemblance to Syria and Libya and no sensible Bahraini would support the aspirations of Maryam and Zainab Al Khawaja in wanting Bahrain to go down this disasterous path. 95% of Bahrain is peaceful and safe, even though this unjustly documentary tries to make our country look like a war zone.

    The opposition movement in Bahrain is not peaceful or democratic

    Over the last year there has been a shift towards militant and terrorist tactics; for example, note the recent impounded shipments of heavy arms from Iran.

    Leading figures within Al-Wefaq Islamic Society have publically associated themselves with groups like the Feb 14 Youth Coalition which have claimed responsibility for terrorist bombings. For the past couple of years, most of the opposition’s activity has been limited to low-level rioting and attacks on police with Molotovs and makeshift weapons.

    Mariam & Zainab’s narrative of rights & democracy does not reflect the true aims of the opposition

    This protest movement is effectively led by a small clique of clerics and ayatollahs with no democratic or tolerant credentials. Most Bahrainis would not accept their vision of an Islamic Republic.

    Mariam & Zainab’s father is presented by the film as a “prisoner of conscience”. He is not.

    Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja’s organization, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, failed in its Iran-sponsored coup attempt in the early 1980s. Al-Khawaja was forced into exile in Denmark. When Al-Khawaja was granted amnesty by the King, he formed the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights in 2002, which continued its activity even after it was shut down for adopting radical political stances.

    In a 2007 press release, the BCHR itself states "Until 1989, Mr. Alkhawaja had been a member of the Islamic Front and consequently an active member of the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners in Bahrain (CDPPB)," with the key word here being “consequently”. It is not by chance that Mr. Al Khawaja found himself on the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners while concurrently trying to establish an Islamic Republic.

    During the 2011 unrest Al-Khawaja appears on several videos inciting followers to “topple the regime”; rejecting dialogue with the Crown Prince; and even boasting that he is holding out for a Shia Prime Minister. He was closely associated with the initiative for forcibly establishing an Islamic Republic in Bahrain.

    Maryam’s Bahrain Centre for Human Rights is not a human rights NGO

    During the February 2011 unrest the BCHR dropped any pretense to political impartiality and became a major driving force within the opposition.

    The BCHR ignores non-politicized human rights issues, like the rights of migrant workers and the rights of women – note their failure to support the introduction of a Family Law within the Shia community to protect the rights of women and children.

    Most Bahrainis support reform – not revolution

    Most moderate and educated Bahrainis strongly oppose the aspirations of the Khawajas for revolution; especially after the disasters we have seen in Syria, Libya and Egypt. We support the reform programme being pursued by the King which is bringing about real results.

  • John | January 20, 2014 2:27 PM

    ^'We support the reform programme being pursued by the King which is bringing about real results.' Im seriously curious, what real results have come about because of the King? Oh also just did a very quick search, literally 30 seconds and already I can find evidence of the BCHR supporting Migrant workers and rights of women and children, I may be mistaken, but its all there :)