How to Start a Revolution premieres at Boston Film Festival, wins awards

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A more fitting debut could not have been conceived for the new feature documentary “How to Start a Revolution,” given its world premiere on September 18th as part of the 27th annual Boston Film Festival. In attendance were the director, Ruaridh Arrow, as well as a few of the people featured in the film: Robert Helvey, Jamila Raqib, and the man himself, Gene Sharp. At 83 years old and with rather limited mobility, Dr. Sharp  rarely makes public appearances these days. But the several hundred who had turned out to see him in Boston were by no means disappointed, responding with at least three standing ovations on the afternoon. For those of us lucky enough to have been there and hear him speak, including a number of his close friends and colleagues, it was impossible not to recognize the deep significance of the moment, with the humble Dr. Sharp visibly moved by the outpouring of support.

Contextualizing the legacy of Dr. Sharp through the recent uprisings in the Arab world, the film introduces him anew, in a way that prior attempts had never quite been able. Until very recently, biographical portraits had been rather few and far between—a deficit due, not to lack of interest, but rather to Sharp’s insistence upon the importance of his work above all else, including the details of his personal life. This new film offers a unique, unprecedented look at a man to which no journalist—let alone filmmaker—had ever been granted this kind of access. After speaking at length with the director, Mr. Arrow, I got the sense that he both understands and appreciates the unique opportunity he’d been given, as well as the responsibility he now had. For the story of Gene Sharp, and of the Albert Einstein Institution (which Sharp founded in 1983 and where I later worked), is one that should have been widely told long before revolutions came in different colors.

At times the film can be both extraordinarily personal and profoundly global in scope, taking us from a small office in East Boston to Egypt, Iran, Syria, Serbia, Burma, West Virginia, and back again. Guided by seven lessons gleaned from Sharp’s body of work, we’re led on the trail of his most well known tract, From Dictatorship to Democracy. Sharp’s friend and former colleague, retired US Army Colonel Robert Helvey, provides a welcome bit of flavor and personality to the film, as well as more than a degree of humor. The segments with Jamila Raqib, Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution, lend the film a level of authority and intimacy that is certain to affect viewers.

Gene Sharp and AEI Executive Director Jamila Raqib

Some of the most personal and touching moments of “How to Start a Revolution” are between Sharp and Raqib, who in ten years of working together have grown quite dear to one another. Propelled by exquisitely shot sequences interspersed with powerful archival footage, the documentary also features interviews with an impressive supporting cast, including Srdja Popovic and Ahmed Maher—instrumental in the takedowns, respectively, of the dictators Milosevic and Mubarak.

Additionally impressive, especially for Mr. Arrow’s first film, is the way it confronts head-on some of the controversy surrounding Dr. Sharp’s influence in recent years. The film tastefully shows how amid the charges by some on the left of collusion with the CIA, the real story is vastly different, and far less glamorous. Operating out of a two-room office on the ground floor of an East Boston row house, the Albert Einstein Institution has lately garnered quite a disproportionate amount of attention, which speaks to the strength of Dr. Sharp’s ideas. What many who attended the premiere were surprised to learn from Ms. Raqib, however, is that even with interest at an all-time high, the work of the Albert Einstein Institution remains significantly under-funded, its very solvency at times coming into question.

Some of this has to do with the history of the Institution, which in the film is never quite told in full. The director explained to me that, while trying to be as thorough as possible, the omissions were partly due to him being unable to secure key interviews despite repeated attempts. Still, it does seem like more could have been done to include other, more recent scholars of nonviolent action, if only for them to underscore the fundamental importance of Dr. Sharp to the field. The critique most likely to be levelled at the film, though, is that it over-emphasizes Sharp’s role in nonviolent revolutions throughout the world. To this I’ll let Mr. Arrow respond, from his June 2011 interview with TheFilmStage.com:

What Gene Sharp has given is a strategic plan for revolution. He hasn’t put a million people in the streets of Cairo or Belgrade; what he’s done is help them make their movements more effective. His work tends to go to the leaders of the movement, the intellectuals, … they distill it themselves, and they create the strategic plan based on that work. Then they feed it out to their population … So, most people involved in a revolution won’t know that Gene Sharp had anything to do with it, or that his writings were used. When the New York Times does a big article saying how influential Gene was in the Egyptian revolution, suddenly everyone throws up their arms and goes, “we never heard of him.” That’s completely normal, there’s no reason they should have …

So while Gene Sharp may or may not have had as large and looming an influence as the film does at times imply, it’s never been up for debate that the man’s writings are a powerful force. He was the first to identify nonviolent action as a distinct political phenomenon, isolate it in such a way that it could be studied on its own, and codify it for others to use more effectively. As Dr. Sharp himself is always very quick to point out, he did not invent strategic nonviolent struggle. But to use that to downplay his importance is a bit like saying Newton isn’t such a big deal because he didn’t actually invent gravity. It’s very refreshing to see someone who’s never put an ounce of effort into self-promotion finally start to get the recognition they so greatly deserve.

On this point I’m sure the director of what may very well become the definitive documentary on Gene Sharp, would agree. Ruaridh Arrow is a 31-year-old Scottish newspaper and television journalist who himself reported from Cairo in February for the BBC. First in contact with the Albert Einstein Institution in 2008, he’s been working on “How to Start a Revolution” more or less ever since, eventually raising an impressive $60,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year. He told me he sought to make a film that wasn’t just educational and entertaining, but that also stood up to academic scrutiny and created important footage for the historical record. With this first feature-length documentary of his, I would say Mr. Arrow has very much succeeded. And judging by the response of those in attendance at the premiere, I’m not the only one with that opinion.

In the Q&A session that followed the viewing, one woman from Egypt who was at Tahrir Square said she had just recently learned of Dr. Sharp, but was fascinated. Her question, timely and well placed, echoed a theme that scholars of nonviolent action find themselves increasingly being asked to discuss: “The toppling of Mubarak was easy; now what we’re trying to do is hard. How do you safeguard your gains after the revolution?” Flanked on either side by Dr. Sharp and Ms. Raqib, the retired Colonel agreed it was a difficult question, but put forward that removing the dictator is only phase one; phase two is building a democracy. Helvey said too many people think they’ve won as soon as the first phase is over, stressing that it’s never good strategy to abandon the battlefield halfway through. “You need to start planning phase two on the very first day of phase one,” he said.

If “How to Start a Revolution” gets people asking questions like this, informed by the lessons of Dr. Sharp but tailored to the problems facing them, the film is a success no matter what. Less than a week after its world premiere it had already managed to win two awards at the Boston Film Festival: Best Documentary, and the Mass Impact Award, “given to a filmmaker whose movie illuminates a social issue that positively affects humanity.”

As far as finally getting to see the film, there should be a number of options. In addition to various screenings and other festivals, including London’s Raindance this year on Gandhi’s birthday (October 2nd), it will also appear in a condensed television version, and eventually, one hopes, be featured at theaters around the world. The DVD, Mr. Arrow assured me, will be available sometime early next year.

Keep an eye out for when it plays near you: www.howtostartarevolutionfilm.com

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