Two documentaries open in New York today that provide a close-up look at the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. If you think that these upheavals were plots concocted by the CIA to weaken Iran and Russia, you will benefit from watching both since they present flesh and blood human beings in struggle rather than geopolitical abstractions–chess pieces being moved across a board. For those who identify with the struggles and have offered solidarity in one way or another, the films will help sustain you in these most trying of times when dark reaction rules almost everywhere.
Playing at the Cinema Village, “We are the Giant” focuses on the anti-government protests, both peaceful and violent, in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. While there is little to distinguish the ideals and self-sacrifice of the protagonists in each arena, those from the first two countries are regarded by much of the left as tools of American imperialism while the Bahraini activists get a clean bill of health purely on the basis of not opposing an ally of Putin’s Russia. Such a litmus test of course does not do justice to the human beings risking their lives for the right to express their ideas without being tortured or killed. It is indeed ironic that a left so aroused at the new revelations about CIA torture managed to overlook how Gaddafi and Assad opened their torture chambers for the victims of the CIA extraordinary rendition program.
A Libyan man named Osama living in the USA and enjoying the good life has a 21-year old son named Muhannad who decides to join the armed struggle against Gaddafi. As is the case throughout the film, there is hair-raising footage of protests and street fighting. Muhannad, who has no previous military training, gets a crash course in how to fire an automatic weapon and soon becomes the bravest and most dedicated fighter. Like most young men and women who joined the rebellion, there was a failure to come to terms with both the military odds against them and the daunting tasks of building a new society out of the wreckage left by 40 years of dictatorship. Muhannad was willing to take the risk simply on the basis of knowing what life was like under Gaddafi. Students were tortured or killed for undertaking the most modest steps toward democracy. In risking his life to secure a measure of freedom, he did not ask for a promissory note that the new system would not bring along a new set of ills. While the film makes no comments on post-Gaddafi Libya, it is only people intoxicated by their own ideology who will reduce Muhannad to a symbol of US global domination.
Post-Gaddafi Libya is often held up as a poster child for what might happen in Syria if the “moderate” rebels prevailed as if anything could be worse than the prevailing conditions where barrel bombs are routinely dropped on outdoor markets and working class apartment buildings. Activists Ghassan and Motaz favored peaceful resistance and were key media activists in the early stages of the revolution when the masses took to the streets just as they had throughout the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. The film depicts in graphic detail how peaceful marchers were shot down in the streets. Even as Syria has descended into a hellish war of attrition with jihadists threatening to impose a Salafist regime as evil as Assad’s “secular” nightmare, Ghassan and Motaz continue to support Gandhi-type nonviolent resistance.
For me, the final section of the film that deals with Bahrain was most revelatory. Two sisters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja share their father’s commitment to nonviolent struggle. As soon as the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, he returns from exile and becomes a pivotal figure. Unlike Libya and Syria, Bahrain was an ally of the USA and the film shows John Kerry glad-handing a Bahraini despot while the father is facing 12 years in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship. The two sisters are powerful tribunes for a society trying to live in freedom and security. If you like me have only a sketchy idea of what the struggle in Bahrain has been about, “We are the Giant” will spur you to find out more and to join the solidarity movement to free their father and the rest of a long-suffering population.
“Maidan”, which opens today at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is a strict cinema vérité production that adopts the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Frederick Wiseman. However, unlike Wiseman who tends to pan his camera on rather quotidian locales such as high schools or hospitals, director Sergei Loznitsa—a Ukrainian—and his crew are immersed in the Euromaidan protests and could not portray normalcy even if they intended to. From the opening minutes of the film, you realize that you are in the crucible waiting for sparks to fly.
In some ways, the film has the character of a live feed on the Internet as you simply watch people gathered together in an immense crowd or fighting with the cops. The obvious purpose is to allow you to make up your own mind about what was happening there rather than to impose some kind of ideological framework with facile conclusions such as the kind RT.com is famous for.
Although I have obviously made up my mind about the Euromaidan protests, I will reprise what I gleaned from Loznitza’s footage. To start with, the speakers at the early, peaceful rallies were decidedly non-ideological. The most common themes were redemption of the Ukrainian nation and the need to lead normal lives, with ample appeals to the crowd’s Christian beliefs. When speeches were not being made, folk singers were raising spirits with patriotic tunes that the crowd sang along with. If there were fascists on the stage, the film either made sure to ignore them or—more likely in my opinion—there were none to be found.
Undoubtedly the fascists did play a role in the street fighting as Yanukovych sent the cops out to clear Maidan of protestors, just as his Chinese counterparts are doing now in Hong Kong. But it is unlikely that any ordinary Ukrainian who was there simply to fight for the right to protest cared much who was fighting the cops or what they stood for. Since Svoboda and Privy Sektor were better organized than those who came to Maidan to protest the regime as individuals, they were able to control the facts on the ground. Despite this, Ukrainians continue to vote for centrist politicians no matter the RT.com inspired warnings about an immanent fascist takeover.
While RT.com ratchets up its rhetoric about the fascist threat posed by the Ukrainian government, the French National Front campaigns with funds it borrowed from a Russian bank at the behest of Vladimir Putin, something that the pro-Putin left is indifferent to.
Director Sergei Loznitsa is a skilled documentary filmmaker who has excelled in narrative films as well. If you ever get the opportunity to see his “In the Fog”, grab it since it is a perceptive look at how Byelorussia, another “lesser nation”, fared under Stalinist rule during WWII. Its hero is a railway worker who faces threats from Nazis and Communist partisans as well. Based on a novel of the same name by Byelorussian author Vasil’ Bykaw, it depicts the difficulties of making moral choices in a world where immorality prevails—in other words, a film very relevant to our situation today.