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April 11, 2014

"We are the Giant” Shows Complexity of Resistance to Middle East Repression

By Molly Hofsomer

From the opening black screen cloaked in the cries of protest, “We are the Giant” humanizes the complex revolutions of the Arab uprisings by following the stories of a few committed activists in their struggle for change.  Director Greg Barker pulls from his experiences as a war correspondent incorporating footage from co-producer Razan Ghalayani to produce his third Sundance title, recently screened at an event in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Human Rights First and scheduled to be shown at the prominent HotDoc documentary film festival in Toronto running from April 24 through May 4.

While the revolutions in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain differ greatly in their outcomes and methods of progress, Baker exposes the common motivations and challenges of the people behind the movements through his character-driven storytelling.  The film captures the struggle between remaining peaceful and the temptation to turn to violence, the personal sacrifices made by those most committed to change, and the common goals driving the movements.  Through interviews and first-hand video footage of the revolutions—much of which was captured via cell phone cameras and is at times graphic—the stories are shared in three narratives intercut with images from revolutions throughout history and peppered with related quotations from Stalin to Martin Luther King Jr.  

Rather than providing a detailed description of the events and circumstances leading up to each of the featured revolutions, “We are the Giant” tells the stories through activists’ experiences. The first chapter is on Libya, of Osama Bensadik and his Virginia-raised son Muhannad whose stories are characterized by sacrifice and change.  Fearing for his son’s safety after having left the United States to join a group of rebel fighters, Osama traveled to his home country of Libya to discourage Muhannad from taking up arms against the Gaddafi regime.  While Osama was initially resistant to his son’s participation, he is eventually inspired to join the fight by Muhannad’s commitment to the revolution.  After perceiving the shortcomings of peaceful attempts for change in Libya, Muhannad and Osama accept violence as necessary to achieve those goals.

Motaz Murad and Ghassan Yassin in Syria share a different experience—one that embraces non-violence as a fundamental principle of revolution.  These Syrian friends met through the internet and began working together to organize what became known as the “flower protests,” using subversive non-violent activism to protest the repressive Assad regime.  While the government responded to this movement with an extreme crackdown resulting in demolished neighborhoods and gruesome attacks against peaceful civilians including children, Motaz and Ghassan remain committed to peaceful resistance. 

The bulk of the film however focuses on the stories of Bahraini sisters Zainab and Maryam Al Khawaja, daughters of internationally known human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja who is currently serving a life-sentence in prison in Bahrain for his activism during the 2011 “forgotten revolution.”  Embracing their father’s commitment to human rights in Bahrain, Maryam and Zainab took up the cause when they returned to the country after spending their youth in exile in Denmark. Baker shares the differing but collaborative approaches used by the two Al Khawaja sisters to continue the fight of this lesser known chapter of the Arab uprisings.  

Zainab fights from within Bahrain, participating in and organizing non-violent acts of resistance.  She has been arrested seven times, beaten, and continues to face charges.  Her story is complicated by the self-sacrifice she makes in her role as mother to a young daughter, describing in a moving narrative how she is not afraid to die if it means that her daughter will grow up in a world with dignity.

Maryam fights for change from the outside, traveling the world and drawing attention to Bahrain.  Maryam’s activism has led to her own exile from Bahrain and Barker touchingly depicts the solitude of her struggle.  Barker delves deeper into the Al Khawaja’s approach to revolution than he does with the other activists—exposing the influence the American Civil Rights movements and the peaceful activism of Mahatma Gandhi has had on Maryam and Zainab—sharing the story of a family torn apart by their dedication to change.

 “We are the Giant,” a film decidedly about individuals, derives its title from a story shared by Zainab originally told to her by her father comparing the populace to a giant, and questioning how that giant can be ruled by a single man.