The Reluctant Revolutionary: Berlin Film Review

The Reluctant Revolutionary Berlin Film Still - H 2012
An anxious tour guide in Yemen gives great immediacy to British doc about the bloody fall of a dictator.

British filmmaker Sean McAllister's documentary is one of the most immediate and accessible descriptions of the Arab Spring to emerge.

A breathless pace, a sense of black humor and a great central character make The Reluctant Revolutionary one of the most immediate and accessible descriptions of the Arab Spring yet to emerge. The place is Yemen and British documaker Sean McAllister (Liberace of Baghdad, Working for the Enemy) has the good fortune and sense of timing to be inside the country when the main events in Change Square happen, events that would lead eight months later to the resignation of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, dictator for 33 years. Colorful and easily understandable, it has the numbers to connect with Western TV viewers after it makes the fest rounds.

Traveling to Yemen on a tourist visa, McAllister spent months filming the country before the fateful events of the “Friday of Dignity” on March 18, 2011, when 52 peaceful protestors were shot to death by government agents. His constant companion and interface with Yemeni society is his utterly likable local tour operator Kais, an anxious 35-year-old father of three who works in his father’s travel agency. Beleaguered by creditors after the failure of a hotel venture, he at first blames the protest demonstrations for curbing the tourism that is his livelihood. But as events rapidly unfold around them and McAllister insists on filming in the capital city’s Change Square amid growing unrest, Kais swings to the other side. When he becomes an eyewitness to the Friday of Dignity massacre, he turns into a true believer in the revolution.

Many documentaries from the Arab world boast extraordinary I-was-there footage of the harrowing events of the Arab Spring and, being shot by local filmmakers, they show greater depth in explaining political events. What makes The Reluctant Revolutionary unique, however, is the central presence of Kais, whose cultural openness and command of English makes him an ideal mediator between the Arab reality and the Western filmmaker. Together with McAllister’s ability to capture the irony and sheer paradox of situations, he pulls the viewer into the action with his marital problems and nervous chewing of the local drug khat.

McAllister acts as his own cameraman, and the only real problem is his choice to film with a constantly moving and zooming handheld camera, whose net result looks like a cell phone video. Though the one time he’s shown filming he is holding his small DV cam perfectly still, there is practically no shot that is held steady long enough to be fully absorbed. This would seem to be a stylistic choice rather than a technical necessity, because even in quiet indoor situations the extreme close-ups are nervously jumpy.  It all imparts a dynamic, exciting look to the film, but comes with the cost of denying the viewer a badly needed visual breather to think things through.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Production companies: Tenfoot Films, Underground Films for BBC in association with the Irish Film Board
Director: Sean McAllister
Screenplay:  Sean McAllister
Producers: Elhum Shakerifar, Rachel Lysaght
Executive Producers: Sean McAllister, Nick Fraser, Alan Maher
Director of photography: Sean McAllister
Editor: Johnny Burke
Music: Denis Clohessy
No rating, 73 minutes