We Are the Giant: Sundance Review

A slickly assembled and insightful documentary that looks at three individual stories from the Arab Spring.

In his latest documentary, director Greg Barker looks at the Arab Spring through the prism of a handful of first-hand participants in Libya, Syria and Bahrain.

The rather abstract and complex subject of the Arab Spring is given a human face -- or, more correctly, a handful of articulate talking heads -- in the slickly assembled We Are the Giant, from director Greg Barker (last year's Emmy-winning documentary Manhunt).

This nonfiction film manages to both quickly place the Arab Spring in a wider sociohistorical context of civil rights leaders and uprisings as well as zoom in on a few gripping individual stories in three places in the Middle East where the wave of protests by the people toppled leaders or ignited excessively violent state repression: Libya, Syria and Bahrain. A mixture of raw, first-hand footage, shot by protesters themselves, and more self-possessed interviewees ensures that the chaos and sometimes lethal risks of protesting come across as strongly as the pressing sociopolitical reasons behind them and the effects the events have had on the participants.

With a good part of the interviews in English and attractive (if perhaps a tad too poppy, given the gravity of the subject) animated visuals as well as live-action footage, this should be on the radar of distributors and TV channels with an affinity for timely, mainstream-oriented documentaries.

The film focuses on stories from countries whose experiences of the Arab Spring couldn't be more different, though some basic elements recur, including the nonviolent origins of all protests and the importance of social media, with Barker integrating revolution-themed tweets onscreen throughout. The film starts with what should technically be one of the major success stories of the Arab Spring: Libya, a country that managed, through a popular if quickly armed uprising (and U.S. and French military interventions) to remove its long-installed dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

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But the enforcement of the will of the people comes at a high price, as the story of Osama Ben-Sadik shows. The Libyan-American, who has homes in Virginia and Benghazi, lost his son, Muhannad,to the revolution at 21. "If everyone leaves, who will fight for the revolution?" Muhannad asked his father. Both inspiring and sobering, this most straightforward of the three stories suggests the human cost of the uprising as well as how it was essentially driven by young people who, in turn, inspired others.

The film's second part focuses on Syria, currently still stuck in a civil war. Activists Motaz Murad and Ghassan Yassin both stress that nonviolent action is the only acceptable way to protest a government that uses senseless violence. But, like Nelson Mandela learned in his ANC days, there comes a point where the violence the state uses to squelch any peaceful anti-government protests will mean death, so the remaining options become either letting the government win or taking up arms and defending the cause.

The longest and most complex segment is dedicated to two Bahraini sisters, Zaineb and Maryam, who are the daughters of human-rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, currently serving a life sentence for "terrorism." Some of the region's biggest street protests occurred in Bahrain, but human rights violations there -- including the arrest, torture and killing of peaceful protestors -- have been virtually ignored by the West, mainly because of the country's strategic importance (the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf uses Bahrain as its base), the documentary suggests.

Zaineb is an Arab Spring Twitter superstar, with almost 50,000 followers for her @AngryArabiya account and has participated in countless nonviolent protests, repeatedly putting her life at risk and being locked up numerous times despite the fact she has (or as she explains, exactly because she has) a one-year-old daughter. Maryam escaped from Bahrain back to Denmark, where the sisters spent part of their childhood after their father was exiled. From Copenhagen, she's been tirelessly trying to drum up media and foreign government attention for what's happening in her native country in general and with her family in particular. (Her being in the film feels as much a credit to her PR skills as to Barker's research.)

Apart from the compelling and fluidly told stories of the struggle of individuals with a much more powerful entity, the state, what one takes away from We Are the Giant -- the title references a story Abdulhadi told his children in which the giant is the people and the government a small man who has somehow managed to convince the giant he's in charge -- is that the Arab Spring means something different for each individual but that the uprisings are rooted in a general desire for change and fairness that would allow room for all voices to be heard. Barker here offers a courageous few as a starting point.

For the record: Co-producer Razan Ghalayini was responsible for the production of some of the footage in countries that Barker had no direct access to.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production companies: Motto Pictures, Passion Pictures
Director: Greg Barker
Producers: John Battsek, Julie Goldman, Greg Barker
Co-producer: Razan Ghalayini
Directors of photography: Muhammad Hamdy, Frank-Peter Lehmann
Music: Philip Sheppard
Editor: Joshua Altman
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 92 minutes