There has been an influx of documentaries recently that have focused on the so called “Arab Spring”. Some, like Wiam Bedirxan & Ossama Mohammed’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014), Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013) and Talal Derki’s The Return To Homs (2013), offer no niceties or homilies. Rather, they are a constantly evolving narrative with itself that does not exclude but immerses the audience into for what for many is a unknown political reality, and for others a nightmare from which they seek escape. The latest documentary to join these fantastic cinematic milestones is Greg Barker’s We Are the Giant (2014), and it is a strange kettle of fish indeed.
Focusing on three different strands: first Libya, then Syria and finally for the longest part of the documentary Bahrain, it is very definitely aimed at one specific audience – America. The majority of participants are Anglophonic, attractive and most importantly nonthreatening to US interests and the difficult questions the inverse reality would create if followed. In Libya we focus on Osama BenSadik, a Libyan-American, who has homes in Virginia and Benghazi, and who lost his son, Muhannad, to the revolution aged just 21. Much is made of Muhannad’s love of America, in such a way as to appear cloying and over apologetic for his Libyan heritage. Nevertheless, like all three segments this is a moving narrative but suffers from a lack of contextualisation whatsoever: perfect for the audience the film is aimed at.
The second section is in Syria and follows activists Motaz Murad and Ghassan Yassin who both declare that Bashar alAssad can only be defeated by nonviolent action. Again, you would be forgiven for forgetting that Syria’s revolution is mired in the midst of a sectarian argument between the rebels looking to overthrow alAssad. Lastly we arrive in Bahrain for the longest part of the film which is dedicated to two Bahraini sisters, Zaineb and Maryam, who are the daughters of activist Abdulhadi al- Khawaja, currently serving a life sentence for “terrorism.” With Bahrain being such an ally of the West you would expect some difficult questions to be asked, but Barker seems content to evade this equation and tell the profoundly moving story of the sisters and their struggle to bring to the world’s attention to the human rights abuses in their country. Inter-cut with Revolutionary statements from such strange bedfellows as Benjamin Franklin, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mahatma Gandhi, we are forced to look at the uprisings in the Middle East through the prism of nonviolent movements throughout the Western 20th century.
This problem harks back towards the central issue of all Western contextualisation, that which Edward Said labelled ‘Orientalism’. Even if We Are the Giant seeks only to enlighten, it is though the mistake of a subtle brand of Orientalism that lumps all Arabs as a single mass of people who think and behave in the same way. The term ‘Arab Spring’ is where the film falls into the trap of many Western commentators, that of referencing a history of Western 20th century revolution to the contemporary Middle East. Maytha Alhassen, Provost Ph.D. Fellow in American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California has said that what people miss by using the term is that these uprisings “are more than just a ‘democratic blooming’, they are what democracy is predicated on, a revolutionary demand for recognizing their right to human dignity.” This misstep results in thoroughly emotionally dishonest film that aims for pedagogical enlightenment and lapses into trite feelgood disparate fantasies.