Despite its harrowing on-the-ground footage, Greg Barker's Arab Spring documentary risks pretentiousness.
“We Are the Giant” profiles seven activists involved in various national uprisings of the Arab Spring, several of whom already have high international profiles; some are now deceased or imprisoned. A surfeit of harrowing on-the-ground footage during protest crackdowns, plus the protagonists’ testimonies, make for a frequently inspiring and exciting documentary. But helmer Greg Barker (“Ghosts of Rwanda”) also risks pretentiousness in various forms of stylistic and thematic overreach, while providing viewers scant explanatory info on the regional conflicts. This U.S.-U.K. co-production will have an easier time scoring broadcast sales in the latter territory; elsewhere, exposure will be spotty beyond fest travel.
Three principal episodes focus on sets of activists in Libya, Syria and Bahrain. In the first, U.S. emigre businessman Osama Bensadik recounts how Virginia-raised son Muhannad, a former Boy Scout, traveled to his familial homeland and joined a group of rebels out to overthrow Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Alarmed by the danger his child was putting himself in, Bensadik went back there himself to urge him home, then ended up joining the revolution that would soon claim his 21-year-old offspring’s life.
Syrian friends Ghassan Yassin and Motaz Murad committed themselves to peaceful resistance against Assad’s tyranny, though the extreme brutality of the regime’s response — we see entire civilian neighborhoods bombed beyond recognition, dead children scattered among the rubble — eventually prompted the rise of the oppositional Free Syria Army.
Likewise dedicated to Gandhi’s principals of nonviolent resistance are sisters Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja, who spent most of their formative years in Danish exile since their well-known human-rights activist father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, criticized the oppressive monarchy, making it too dangerous for the family to remain in Bahrain. But with stirrings of a popular rebellion heard at last, they move back, participating in protests that spill from the Internet to the public square — and prompt aggressive, armed response from the emir’s government. For his alleged crimes against the state, the father is sentenced to life in prison; Zainab goes on a hunger strike amid repeat arrests; and Maryam travels the globe, trying to lobby an indifferent international community into intervening.
The self-sacrificing sense of moral necessity felt by the principals here is stirring, as are the numerous frightening sequences of street combat. (At one point someone’s camera records a little girl cheerfully singing a song, only to have the moment jolted by a shell explosion, the child’s well-being unknown in the ensuing haze.)
But the immediacy of such scenes isn’t really helped by all the filigree Barker imposes to provide a big-picture perspective. There are innumerable overly fussy black-and-white graphics interludes (by VFX outfit the Mill) mashing up imagery and headlines from practically every historical freedom struggle imaginable. Adding yet more onscreen text are too many quotes encompassing everyone from Jesus to Che Guevara, Mao Tsetung, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Joseph Stalin. Of course the issues involved in Arab Spring uprisings are universal, but so much extraneous material seems to suggest that viewers won’t grasp that unless they’re hammered with reminders of more familiar, similar fights closer to home. At the same time, the pic provides little of the specific backgrounding that would make it more accessible to those not already well versed in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.
Packaging is high-grade if, as noted, often simply overcooked on the design level. Philip Sheppard’s original score also errs on the side of excess, frequently pouring on more percussive bombast than necessary.
Sundance Film Review: 'We Are the Giant'
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 25, 2014. Running time: 90 MIN.
(Documentary — U.S.-U.K.) A Passion Pictures/Motto Pictures production with Screen Pass Pictures, Corniche Pictures and Bertha Foundation in association with the Ford Foundation, Prettybird Pictures and the Mill. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by John Battsek, Julie Goldman, Greg Barker. Executive producers, Christina Weiss Lurie, Hani Farsi, Jeffrey Lurie, Tony Tabatznik. Co-producer, Razan Ghalayini.
Osama Bensadik, Ghassan Yassin, Motaz Murad, Zalnab Al Khawaja, Maryam al-Khawaja, Zainab al-Khawaja. (English, Arabic dialogue)