Review: ‘How to Start a Revolution’

The considerable legacy of Gene Sharp, the unassuming Boston political-science professor whose writings influenced national liberation movements around the globe, is spotlit in Ruaridh Arrow's admiring docu "How to Start a Revolution."

The considerable legacy of Gene Sharp, the unassuming Boston political-science professor whose writings influenced national liberation movements around the globe, is spotlit in Ruaridh Arrow’s admiring docu “How to Start a Revolution.” This U.K. feature is well timed amid the ongoing events of the Arab Spring, as well as the Occupy Wall Street spinoffs in various U.S. cities, in which Sharp’s methods of popular nonviolent resistance resonate. Straightforward, informative pic could carve out niche viewership in various formats, especially via broadcast and educational channels.

Tending orchids in his spare time or working alongside the sole other staffer at his nonprofit Albert Einstein Institution, 83-year-old Sharp hardly seems the sort to topple dictators. But his books — in particular the handbook “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptional Framework for Liberation,” first self-published in 1993 — is cited here by movement leaders for its importance in helping to shape recent popular uprisings in Serbia and other Eastern European nations, as well as, very recently, Egypt and Syria.

Another measure of Sharp’s influence is that people have been imprisoned for owning, transporting or reproducing his work; long after the Cold War’s end, two Russian bookshops stocking his writings “accidentally” burnt down. Iran (as seen in a computer-animated propaganda clip) accuses him of being a CIA agent, while Hugo Chavez has lumped him with George W. Bush (a very strange bedfellow) as stirring imperialist insurrection.

The miracle of Sharp’s methodologies — related here as calmly laying out ways to undermine a repressive regime without protesters resorting to armed struggle themselves, with the aim of winning military and police over to an increasingly popular cause — is that they work far more effectively, inexpensively and constructively than the bomb-them-into-democracy approach of Western interventionists.

Yet Sharp has never attracted research dollars or other support from the U.S. government, no matter that foreign foes claim he’s in the pocket of the Pentagon — even though his ideas don’t include the empire-building tenets of developing a country’s exploitable resources from the outside.

With potential to be updated as world events unfold, the docu should have a long shelf life. Only subpar element in the crowd-funded pic’s efficient assembly is the somewhat cheesily dramatic synth score.

How to Start a Revolution



A Big Indy production in association with Lion Television. (International sales: TVF Intl., London.) Produced by Richard Shaw. Executive producer, James L. Otis. Directed by Ruaridh Arrow.


Camera (color, HD), Philip Bloom; editors, Michael Crozier, Lorrin Braddick; music, John Keltonic. Reviewed at San Francisco Docfest, Oct. 23, 2011. Running time: 82 MIN.


Gene Sharp, Jamila Raqib, Bob Helvey, Srdja Popovic, Vlodymyr Viatrovych, Iason Athanasadis, Ahmed Maher, Ausama Monajed. (English, Arabic, Ukranian, Spanish dialogue)

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