Nov 14, 2014
We Are The Giant documents the struggle to bring about change in the Middle East, focusing on activists in Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Cristiana Moisescu talked to the documentary’s director, Greg Barker, as well as to one of the featured activists, Maryam al-Khawaja, from Bahrain.
Still from We Are The Giant: protest in Manama, Bahrain, 2012.
© We Are The Giant
How did you decide to make this documentary?
Greg Barker: I was very interested in [the concept of] revolution and I spent a lot of time looking at how contemporary events were informed by actions of the past. I was inspired by the people who are standing up for the ideals that helped build the countries that we live in and wanted to tell a story that really explored what it takes to stand up to those ideals and the sacrifices that people have to make.
Why did you choose those three countries?
GB: In a film like this, you can have an infinite number of choices so it’s really just through research and spending a lot of time with people… eventually, these were the ones that seemed to have an interesting way of telling a story.
There’s no right or wrong, it’s just making the choice that these particular characters, in these countries, represented the full scope of the revolutionary experience, from armed struggle to non-violence
The movie opens with interesting credits, depicting controversial revolutionary figures such as Lenin, Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini. Didn’t you fear that association?
GB: No matter what you think about Mao or Che or Lenin, just like the American revolutionaries, they actually talked a lot about revolutions. Whether you agree with what they did, they spent a lot of time thinking about what revolutions involve and what they entail and why they happen.
That’s an academic exercise that they all did, which is independent of what they then did in the course of their own revolutions.
When Zhou Enlai [..] was asked by [Henry] Kissinger what he thought about the French revolution, he said ‘it’s too early to tell’. These things take a long time.
These are people whom I wanted to reflect the full breadth of the revolutionary experience, because it’s not always pretty and it’s not always what we might like or even what the people who began it would have liked.
Khomeini’s revolution in Iran had the support of a broad segment of society and then changed quickly in the ensuing years. The French Revolution was about one thing and then turned into something else. It’s not an easy or a pretty process.
Watching the movie, it felt like you took a step back from what we’re seeing, but that you also left the context slightly unclear.
GB: You have to give a sense of the human drama, of the human experience of it all, rather than a report of what happened. So we all felt it was important to focus on the journey of these people and the ethical and tactical choices that they make along the way.
And because when you make a film like this, it’s not going to last for years – events change and the outcome now won’t be the outcome in five or 10 years – you make a film that is rooted in a moment in time. It doesn’t try to say: ‘This is where we are’.
I know that some of the platforms that I’ve gotten, I got because I wear a hijab. And because I’m a woman of colour - Maryam al-Khawaja
The fact is, it would be outdated if we tried to do that. We finished this film in January, so much has already happened [since then]. You have to make the film in a way that you hope will stand the test of time, it’s very tricky when you’re dealing with current events, but that’s the nature of this art.
Do you feel that by focusing this much on these three families, and less on the context, you risk idealizing the figure of the revolutionary?
GB: I don’t think so. It’s pretty tragic what happens to all of them. What I would say is that it might be a noble path, but not one that I would want to take lightly. I don’t know that I would watch the film and think ‘I want to be a revolutionary’, probably on the contrary – but in the end, history is changed by people who do that.
Not for me to say that they’re idealized, but I think that if you look at key figures throughout history, often, people who are the idealists are the ones who leave their mark and stand the test of time. Lenin was also a revolutionary and an idealist in his own way, and things changed after the Russian Revolution.
I think that if you look at [Mahatma] Gandhi, [Martin Luther] King, [Nelson] Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, these are people who stood up for something, and they were just ordinary people when they began their campaign – three years after they started, Mandela was in jail for life, King was still a fairly small time preacher in the South and Aung San Suu Kyi was still a mother. You can’t judge the impact of these people until time passes.
I wouldn’t say we idealize it, but I think people who become heroes, do so in a way that, at the time you’re looking at them, looks pretty mundane and often hopeless, and the journey can seem almost irrelevant or foolish at the time.
Still, knowing how perverted things have become in Syria, it seems that the path to revolution is not always noble. And the documentary didn’t really show that.
GB: It’s not always noble. Again, we’re not making a film that tries to explain all the context, I really wanted to show what happened when people began on a non-violent path, and then, for a lot of seemingly different, valid reasons, decide that they have to take up arms anyway. Like Mandela did, actually. It’s a common phenomenon; it’s the price they paid, the consequence.
‘Our job is to fight for those people, that’s our responsibility’
Maryam al Khawaja is a dual national, Danish and Bahraini. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison since 2011, following protests against he Bahraini government, and her sister and mother have been arrested as well. Maryam was arrested on 30 August 2014, when she landed in Manama, Bahrain, trying to visit her family.
The documentary leaves off with your sister in and out of jail, you still abroad, but things have changed since then. You’ve managed to go back to Bahrain twice and you were arrested there in August.
Maryam al-Khawaja: Things changed – Zainab [Maryam’s sister] got out seven months ago, in February; I went back and got arrested, I went to prison for a while and then I got out [in September 2014]. Now things are back to where they started: I’m outside, doing advocacy work, and Zainab’s back in prison.
And she’s eight months pregnant too. Do you think she’s going stay in prison until she gives birth?
MK: Yes, she had a hearing. It was supposed to be a sentencing, but the judge adjourned the trial until 4 December. My analysis is that it’s probably related to the fact that there are elections happening on 22 November, and so it’s really bad PR to sentence her right now.
But it also means that because she’s in her last month of pregnancy, she will probably be giving birth during her imprisonment.
You do a lot of advocacy work, and are very public about it, and so is your family. Have you or your family ever had any qualms about taking part in this documentary?
MK: The documentary hasn’t been made fully public yet [at the time of the interview] so I haven’t really seen what the response from the public is generally going to be.
I do know that in the past, we have had criticism from people saying ‘You’re doing this to be in the spotlight, this is all about you’. I’ve heard that kind of talk before.
It was because of the position that I was in, doing the human rights work that I was doing and getting a lot of interviews. And it was mostly non-Bahrainis, but people were saying ‘You’re doing this because you want the attention.’
Which is fair enough, they’re entitled to their opinion. I think that for us, what’s been challenging, and this is something that was a challenge for me about the documentary itself.
When Razan Ghalayini [co-producer] first contacted me about the documentary, first, she asked me a lot of questions, and I thought she was working for Bahraini intelligence, so I didn’t want to talk to her.
Key figures throughout history are often people who are the idealists, the ones who leave their mark and stand the test of time - Greg Barker
Afterwards, I told her that my only reservation about doing this documentary, the only way that I would agree to do it, is if they promise to make sure that it’s about Bahrainis, about Bahrain, even if we’re in it. That it’s about the Bahraini struggle, not about us.
So I don’t mind us being used as a vessel to bring out the story of what people are going through inside the country. That’s the way I see myself, as an amplifier to people who don’t’ have a voice inside the country.
Do you feel like the documentary accurately portrays that?
MK: To a large degree yes, I think it talks about what’s going on in Bahrain. They gave me and my sister the space to talk about how we are not what matters when it comes to Bahrain, how it’s about the people’s struggle. For me, that was very important.
Our job is to fight for those people, that’s our responsibility. Even if the movie was mainly about me and my sister and my family, I feel like it gave us an opportunity to talk about what you will usually not hear in Bahrain.
Bahraini activists Zeinab al-Khawaja (left) and her sister, Maryam al-Khawaja (right).
There was a very striking image in the documentary, with men and women on either side of a large avenue, protesting, but separated. In Bahrain, how relevant is that image for daily interaction between men and women, in politics, in social spaces?
MK: It is and it isn’t. I know that when they see that image, generally, people’s reaction is ‘Oh, Muslims, they separate men and women.’ For me, it’s pretty impressive that they’re walking alongside each other.
There’s no space in the street to be walking next to each other, but the fact that the women are not walking behind the men is an important image.
Also, sometimes, it’s just about being comfortable. I’ve been in those protests and I’m what you may call a liberal. For me, it wasn’t an issue of being around men or not, it was about being in all of this together.
At the same time, it was more comfortable to not be in a position where I’m constantly around men and in a very small space. Sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to be around women. It’s not necessarily something that was done as a statement of separation between the sexes.
Do you feel that as an activist, your access to doing certain things has been restricted or freed up by the fact that you’re a woman?
MK: That’s not a very easy question to answer. I know that some of the platforms that I’ve gotten, I got because I wear a hijab. And because I’m a woman of colour.
People are saying ‘Oh look, there’s this Arab hijabi woman… check check check, she knows how to speak English very well, she’s talking about human rights and revolutions, we have to have her on this platform’.
I know that my identity and the way I look actually gets me access to some places. And I make use of it. I don’t necessarily always like it; I don’t like the fact that I’m profiled. For example, I’ve gotten invitations in the past asking me to come and talk about Muslim women’s issues.
But I don’t represent Muslim women, I represent myself; and even if I talked about Muslim women’s issues in Bahrain, they’re not going to be the same that people deal with in other places. And I’m not familiar with every issue that Muslim women deal with.
There is to some extent, that pigeonholing, but at the same time, it also provides me with more access; it’s a double edged sword.
For me, it’s about how to make the most of it. And it’s the same thing when I’m talking in places where there is support for the Bahraini government.
For example, a few years ago, my family got an award from a US organization and people were telling me ‘How can you go there, how can you accept this award? These are people who are representing the US government, which is enabling the Bahraini government’.
What I did, I accepted that award, but I stood there and I bashed US policy in Bahrain. I used my entire speech just to talk about how bad US policy is towards Bahrain. So they might be doing it for the wrong reasons, but I will make use of that platform to get our message out.
We Are The Giant opens in cinemas on 14 November and will be available on DVD from 24 November.