SpectrumCulture’s review published on Letterboxd:
by Josh Goller
Even for one of the most volatile regions in the world, the Arab Spring of 2011 was incredibly turbulent. Fueled by the interconnectedness afforded by social media, young people all over the Middle East rose up to protest against authoritarian governments ruled by monarchs and dictators with long histories of violently subjugating their populaces. The images of huge swaths of people demanding liberty or otherwise celebrating the fall of rulers such as Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak took the world by storm, as did the bloody suppression of such gatherings in places like Syria. We Are the Giant offers some of the most front-line footage of these bloody uprisings that you’re likely to see, with jarring images calling into question the efficacy of peaceful protest.
The documentary focuses on a handful of principal activists in three separate nations: Libya, Syria and Bahrain. Unfortunately, its slapdash pacing doesn’t offer much insight into what drives these freedom fighters, but instead serves as a salvo of raw, stark footage and images interspersed with historical parallels, pull quotes (and Tweets) and interviews. We hear from Osama Bensadik, a Libyan businessman who immigrated to America and whose Libyan-American son, Muhannad, chose to return to his father’s homeland to fight against Muammar Gaddafi. Muhannad died during the uprising and we see him mourned by his father, who draws inspiration from his son’s patriotism, but we don’t get much more than that, not even coverage of the brutal fate that ultimately befell the Libyan dictator.
The most horrifyingly violent images are from the crackdown on protests by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. We hear from activists Ghassan Yassin and Motaz Murad, who detail how the attempt at peaceful resistance unraveled into a warzone. But the greatest amount of time is spent on Bahraini sisters Maryam and Zainab al-Khawaja, who were the most visible protesters during the conflict, with Maryam appearing on CNN and even seen having a brief conversation with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The sisters also effectively utilized Twitter to draw more attention to their cause, especially as their father was beaten and imprisoned for his human rights work and Zainab was also frequently finding herself behind Bahraini bars. Their situation is made even more compelling as they point out that—Bahrain being an American geopolitical ally—the United States government did little to correct human rights violations in that country. Maryam rightly points out that the United States seems to only intercede on behalf of human rights when doing so aligns with American self-interest, as they did with military strikes in Libya.
But such context is few and far between. We Are the Giant is stylishly assembled, with evocative music and splashy graphics often standing in place of actual substance. Sure, there’s visceral power in the graphic images of peaceful protesters mercilessly gunned down by the government (or one shocking image of a young girl singing in front of the camera moments before a mortar shell blasts the background to rubble). But this film doesn’t offer much in the way of dissecting the actual motivation behind the protests, instead offering a showcase of the ensuing violence as a reason for your blood to boil.
One thing working in We Are the Giant’s favor is the timing of its release. The end of the film parallels events of the American Civil Rights era with what was happening in the Arab Spring. As of this writing, Twitter is currently abuzz with #MillionMarchNYC as protestors flood major city streets to decry the lack of indictments in the separate killings of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of an increasingly militarized police force. Weeks ago, images of riot-gear clad police and burning buildings in Ferguson hearkened back to the Arab Spring minus the body count. It’s just a shame that director Greg Barker doesn’t dig deeper into the Middle Eastern conflict or the history of suppression that spawned these protests. Lip service is paid to confronting violence with nonviolence, but in the end it seems that the scope of the subject matter is just too big to be effectively handled by We Are the Giant.