Ruaridh Arrow’s documentary, How to Start a Revolution is a fascinating introduction to the ideas of Gene Sharp; the man behind the strategies that many claim were key in bringing down dictatorships from Serbia to Egypt. At under an hour it provides a curious, look at Sharp’s humble office, his appreciation for orchids and the people who have employed his ideas. Its downfall is its cursory structure and occasional sentimentality that makes it feel like little more than an abstract to a remarkable thesis.
The most riveting parts of Arrow’s fluid visual essay introduce us to the people who practised his theories in countries where peaceful protest had its desired effect (disappointingly, we hear little about where it failed). Srdjan Popovic of Otpor champions Sharp and footage paired with his interview demonstrates how protesters turned the police and the army before toppling Milosevic – a marked point that address the difficulties experienced by the Egyptians when they came up against Murbarak’s forces. Although here Sharp’s influence is overstated, it does what documentaries should and raises a multitude of questions.
Popovic’s contribution also highlights the lack of specificity to Sharp’s ideas, something that is both inspirational and potentially very dangerous. The documentary focuses on his book From Dictatorship to Democracy, written in response to the actions of Burmese military forces. But Sharp’s lack of knowledge about Burma pushed him to write something hypothetical and generic which, it turns out, is highly applicable across the world (though evidently not Burma).
People as well as publishers have translated his book into approximately 30 languages. As Sharp points out, tracking how this work spread from continent to continent would be a mammoth research task; nonetheless, it has spread, as is evident from the photocopied pages that made the rounds in Tahrir square.
In an article for the BBC, Ruaridh Arrow writes about sleeping alongside protesters in Tahrir in the shadow of a tank as they read Sharp’s work. But such visuals are never made a feature of in his documentary. Instead we see the same images we see on the news, people in matching colours marching under an emblem, a reflection of one of Sharp’s points about presenting an organised, united front in the face of oppressors. And though these images are so very common, like banners in the Middle East written in English, Arrow prompts his viewers to think a little deeper about the strategy and the global perception of such liberation.
Towards the end, he strays into sentimental observations of the fragile, elderly man that Sharp has become. It ties into Arrow’s fascination with who Sharp is as well as the results of his work but feels like an unnecessary glaze on an already light film.
How to Start a Revolution won Best Documentary at Raindance and though Arrow is not the first to look into Sharp’s influence (see Steve York’s documentary A Force More Powerful), he may well succeeded in getting every one of his viewers to reconsider what it takes to effectively seek freedom from oppression.
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This is not to say that either the conduct of war, or the prevailing attitude towards it, has become less bloodthirsty or more chivalrous.