Sundance ’14: Profiling the activist ‘giants’ of the Arab Spring

Filmmaker Greg Barker talks to realscreen about choosing human stories over the politics of the Arab Spring in his latest documentary We Are The Giant (pictured).
January 24, 2014

A quote from Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin appears in an introductory montage in filmmaker Greg Barker’s We Are The Giant (pictured). “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”

It is the revolutionary weeks, months and years borne of 2011′s Arab Spring that the Emmy award-winning director of Manhunt (2013) sought to explore in his documentary, which premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as one of two films examining the uprisings. The other, Talal Derki’s Return to Homs, follows two friends affected by the Syrian rebellions.

Both films are premiering a year after Jehane Noujaim’s Cairo-focused doc The Square won the festival’s world cinema audience award for documentary.

Barker, whose film offers portraits of the region’s activists, says he wanted to explore the experience of being a revolutionary and putting your life on the line for an ideal.

“What would I have done if I was living in southern Alabama? Would I have marched?” asks Barker, in an interview with realscreen. “We always like to think we would do the right thing, but actually most of us, for various reasons, don’t have the courage to really stand up for our ideals.”

The film, which began production in March 2011 – just three months after the first Egyptian protests in December 2010 – profiles three pairs of activists in Libya, Syria and Bahrain whose stories, Barker assures, transcend anything in the news.

In Libya, Osama Ben-Sadik and his 21-year-old, American-born son Muhannad have returned to Benghazi to take up arms against Muammar Gaddafi, while in Syria, friends Motaz Murad and Ghassan Yassin are committed to non-violent protests.

Meanwhile, sisters Maryam and Zainab AlKhawaja Рdaughters of a jailed human rights activist Рnavigate the violent frontlines of the Bahraini protests without weapons. All six characters are battling distinct regimes, but each faces the repercussions of bearing arms or remaining peaceful.

“I think we can’t judge,” says Barker. “Because if any of us are in those situations, what would we do? Historically, revolutions have tended to involve violence, but I think over the last hundred years, there have been people who are saying you have to find a different weapon, so what we try to do in the film is show those choices, and what happens as a result.”

The war correspondent-turned-filmmaker has travelled and worked extensively in the Middle East – his 2011 film Koran By Heart profiled a Koran reading contest in Cairo, and Manhunt detailed the tenuous relationship between the CIA and al-Qaeda – but Barker says he met a new set of challenges with We Are The Giant.

“I had previously filmed in Bahrain so [the government] knew who I was,” says Barker. “And I knew they were cranking down on western journalists, and not really letting us in, so I sent my producer [Razan Ghalayini] in as a tourist, and she made contact and just started filming.”

We really wanted to keep it as low-profile as possible because had certain people and governments found out about what we were doing, our activists would have to disappear, so it was a real under-the-radar project.”

The documentary’s generous use of social media – for example, stylized grabs of Tweets and Facebook statuses, and shaky YouTube clips – reflects a defining characteristic of the Arab Spring, which was organized largely through social networks. For Barker, using these techniques helped the doc’s timeliness.

“Some of this stuff was from the Internet and some we needed to smuggle out, but I really wanted to make the film feel like it was made from the ground up, like it was made from the revolutionaries themselves,” he explains.

The resulting film, for which all rights are still available, is one Barker hopes will clarify some misconceptions about the Arab Spring and its participants, as well as remind audiences that though media coverage may have waned, the struggles are still being waged in full force.

“With regard to these revolutions, it’s an indication of how media culture works,” Barker says. “Stories become hot, a narrative gets defined and followed by a pack mentality. You can see it, in a way, in Bahrain. Bahrain received an enormous amount of attention in the earliest days of its uprising and it lasts a week and then stuff happened in Libya and that was a sexier story against Gaddafi and the entire press corps just left. They never went back!”

It is part of the reason why Barker left journalism for the documentary world.

“I began as a journalist and I made investigative films for Frontline, but I have to say I’m embarrassed by the standard of journalism across the board, with the occasional exceptions,” he admits.

At Sundance, Barker may be away from bombed out buildings and bloodied protestors, but the film’s subjects are never far from mind. Zainab, one of the featured activists, has been imprisoned for a year, and the filmmaker hopes the doc’s Sundance debut will prompt U.S. policy makers to press for her release.

“It’s important to realize how all this began,” says Barker. “It began with people standing up for ideals that all of us can agree with… I wanted to give a sense of that commonality across time and cultures, and then find stories that help us relate to these people, so they don’t seem like strange Others in the Middle East, but people who are just like you and me.”

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