We Are the Giant, a powerful portrait of five human rights activists in Syria, Libya, and Bahrain, personalizes the multiple, simultaneous, and in many ways ongoing struggles often monolithically referred to as the Arab Spring.
Through first-person interviews as well as archival, news, and cell phone footage, director Greg Barker goes beyond Western media’s surface portrayal of mass protests and celebration of Twitter and social media to give individual voice to the people behind these movements and pinpoint the moments at which peaceful protests devolve into government massacres in these three countries. In this regard the film offers a crucial dialogue on the merits of peaceful versus non-peaceful resistance.
While the film’s topic is fascinating and the subjects exceptionally well-spoken, the film is in some ways hamstrung by its formal trappings.
In particular, the wall-to-wall music blanketing a project that has infinitely more interesting sound design possibilities undermines the immediacy of the footage taken from within the protests and massacres, giving the viewer a sense of watching an indie-style war movie rather than actual footage of a thing that really did happen.
The MTV-style graphics used throughout the film, for both subtitles and identifying chyrons, while innovative, at times make the production resemble an iteration of infotainment, rather than the impassioned first-person account of ordinary citizens turned activists caught up in civil war that it actually is.
The montages of archival material relating to historical uprisings, civil wars, and other struggles used to transition between sequences in the film on the surface establish links between ongoing struggles in the Arab world and past struggles. Yet considering these numerous narrative bridges it is interesting to note that most of the depicted struggles are in some way caused by or related to US interests and policies, both foreign and domestic.
However, US involvement in any ongoing struggle is not mentioned until roughly three-quarters of the way through the film, when one of the protagonists, Maryam, points out the hypocrisy of the American relationship with Bahrain’s rulers and laissez-faire attitude towards Syria while intervening in Libya’s civil war.
Coming not long after Zainab’s recounting of the question about how it is possible for one little man to hold the giant hostage, with his hands tied, it seems as though Baker wants to open up a larger discussion around American support of violent, oppressive dictatorships, and is presumably (hopefully) saving that for his next film.
Despite its formal shortcomings, which become more of a pesky annoyance than a total derailment of an otherwise excellent treatment, We Are the Giant is essential viewing not for activists, but for those who would never identify themselves as such.
See this if: You are a human being living on the planet Earth.
We are the Giant is screening at Hot Docs 2014.