Normally at The Film Stage, we highlight crowdfunded projects in our bi-weekly column Crowdfunded Cinema. However, Ruaridh Arrow’s directorial debut, How to Start a Revolution, has us so inspired, that we felt it was an important addition to sneak it in before its campaign ends.
The documentary focuses on Nobel Peace Prize nominee Gene Sharp, and what his writings have done to inspire groups of protestors living under oppressive regimes to stand-up for their own democratic freedom. Focusing on nonviolent action, Genes ideas have been seen put in action during periods of unrest in Burma, Thailand, Bosnia, Estonia, Iran, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and now Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
We spoke with director Ruaridh Arrow recently to discuss the project, and were left inspired and with the sense of urgency that this is a story that needs to be told and heard. We’d also like to encourage reader’s to visit the film’s website and Kickstarter page for more information about this new project. And, as great projects come from great support, please consider donating and becoming involved.
Please read on for our interview with Ruaridh Arrow:
TFS: How did this project first come about?
Arrow: I was studying at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London and a couple of my friends who were Serbs went back home to join OTPOR, the revolutionary group which would later overthrow Milosevic. They showed me some of Gene Sharp’s books and this was the first time I found out about his work. When the Ukrainian Orange Revolution happened 4 years later I was a trainee on a Scottish National newspaper and what I saw unfolding I realized came from the lessons contained in Gene Sharp’s books. As the velvet or color revolutions swept through Eastern Europe I realized that the common thread in all of them was Gene Sharp. However it wasn’t until I was walking through Glasgow one day in 2007 and met an Iranian democracy march that told me about methods used from this book that I realized I had to find Gene Sharp and see if he would be willing to do a film. I was completely stunned that nobody had produced a film about him already.
At the time I was working as a specialist factual producer at a Scottish production company but I couldn’t get any interest from them or a channel at that time. I was told it was something a bit “peacefreaky” and there are loads of “peace gurus” around. This was the common misconception about non-violent struggle which Gene had faced all of his working life.
I talked to Jamila Raqib the Executive Director of Sharp’s institution (The Albert Einstein Institution) about the treatment of a potential film for quite a few months before they agreed in principle. I had a [Director of Photography] in mind instantly, Philip Bloom who was a cameraman while I was a junior producer at Sky News was a master at portrait film-making (he later went on to shoot on George Lucas’s upcoming film “Red Tails”). I knew if I could get Phil to come to Boston he could make a potentially difficult academic documentary into a beautifully shot film and he did that brilliantly.
I raided what little money I had at that point for flights for Phil and I to get to Boston for a week. There was no money to finish the film I just knew that as long as we could get an extensive beautifully shot interview that the story would be “safe” and I could finish the film bit by bit as I saved more money. At that point I thought it would be a simple hour with Gene talking directly to camera covered with archive. It would later turn into a much bigger sort of adventure story following the book from this tiny office around the world to all the revolutionary groups which had used it.
How did Gene react when you expressed interest in making this film?
I still have the email. He said he found the prospect of long hours of filming but he would be willing to give it a go. Importantly he said that he recognized the power of film of film “to convey ideas long after I am not here to write or speak”. It was an incredibly brave thing to do to open up your life’s work for interpretation by a young filmmaker who was not yet up to speed with the work. The responsibility associated with doing this hit me at that point. I realized I would be making a very important historical film of record, even though I knew most people didn’t recognize it yet.
In your own words, why is this a story that needs to be told?
I could be terribly overdramatic about this but there are several reasons why this film is completely different to any other documentary that has been made in the past decade. It is a portrait of perhaps the most influential political thinker of our time, someone who is not just an academic but whose work has been used at critical points in modern history to help people achieve freedom from dictatorships. It brings together the leaders of the most significant revolutions of the past 20 years and serves as a primer in introducing people to the potential of nonviolent struggle as an alternative to terrorism and armed insurrection. So it has a life as a fascinating and quirky and moving film but later as an educational resource for people living under dictatorships and finally as a historical document of the life of a true American hero.
What has been the biggest challenge in making the documentary thus far?
Most filmmakers have problems convincing people that their film is worth making. Eventually I just gave up trying and realized I had to make it myself because either people would try and morph it into something more “commercial” or dumb it down to the extent that it wouldn’t stand up academically. The challenge for me is representing the academic story as thoroughly as I can while making it accessible to the mainstream audience with an insight into the personalities who have organized the downfall of governments. In that respect it’s been a bit like making a science documentary, a tightrope of precision verses watch-ability. No matter what, this film will cause a huge stir but I’m really happy with the result.
Huge Stir? How so?
We only know about Gene Sharp’s influence from the revolutionary movements themselves… He is an unbelievably modest man; he’s never sought fame or fortune from his writings. He always seemed continually quite surprised by the spread of his work, but we know it because people who have used it have told us. And that’s the only reason I knew it, because I talked to the leaders of the Serbian revolution and those other revolutions.
What’s interesting about the Egyptian revolution, is that there’s been a backlash by Egyptian bloggers who say that Gene Sharp had nothing to do with their revolution… So we’ve had emails and tweets directed at us, saying this film is insinuating the cause of the Egyptian revolution, which I’m not doing at all, but this is the common misunderstanding, I think; that Gene Sharp himself claims credit. He never does. He always says, “If people have found my work useful, then I’m glad for that, because all I’ve wanted to do is leave the world in a better place than when I came here.”
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, and they distill it themselves, and they create the strategic plan based on that work. Then they feed it out to their population. It’s organized along those lines, the core principles of the work. 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…
This will always be the big question, and it will be posed by undergraduate professors for years to come; to what extent was Gene Sharp influential in late 20th an early 21st century revolutions.
When you called this an academic story, did you mean going in-depth about the history of the movements, or breaking down and analyzing the ideals that Sharp sets in motion?
Gene himself, although he has been present at a number of a number of revolutions, like Tiananmen, his work is completely academic in nature. It has practical applications, obviously, but he is an academic through and through. The film throughout has its lessons interspersed… about nonviolent struggle. They’re not really Gene’s lessons, they’re the main themes I’ve taken out from his work. Those themes, they’re academic lessons really, and it’s been about how to take his academic writing, and portray it in a way that is simple for people to understand in the film.
Why do you think this story has been overlooked for so long?
I think probably, it’s because when most documentary films are commissioned, and instantly someone who commissions documentaries at a channel thinks, “where is the picture?” And, it’s very difficult to make a documentary about academics or great scientists, you know, people who sit around reading books and looking down microscopes and wearing white coats; that’s not very exciting from a picture point of view. I think that’s where those types of documentaries fall down and just won’t get made, because people won’t make the imagination leap of, “this is a story we’ve got to tell.” Actually, the heroes of our society today aren’t people with machine guns and who are conventionally sexy; they’re the people who are making huge advances in genetics, DNA, and cancer treatment, and the academic work that helps people free themselves from dictatorships. It’s not conventionally attractive to film, and it’s a very difficult challenge making a film like that watchable…
You know Gene is an elderly man, who isn’t outrageous and visually engaging. He’s got great gravitas, but it’s still very difficult to make a film of his own by himself. But what he’s done, his impact, has been absolutely enormous, so it’s really important that his story gets told, no matter what. That, for me, was the challenge. This man is going to be the great political figure of our generation; I have to tell that story somehow. For me, it wasn’t a choice, I knew it had to be done, I had to tell it in whatever way I could do it, and so if that resulted in a slightly unconventional film, then so be it… and now it’s done. It’s a bit of a relief; I feel that he’s now been properly recorded, on film at least, for future generations.
This being your first film, how did you approach the notion of storytelling?
I think it’s such an amazing story that it’s very easy to tell; how it unfolded, how he wrote this book, and how it got passed from revolutionary movement to revolutionary movement. The way I constructed the story was that I said, “Well, Gene Sharp isn’t Che Guevara, he didn’t ride on a motorbike helping people start revolutions,” so I had to think about how to tell the story. The way I’ve told it is that it’s an adventure story of a book; the book is kind of born in Burma, and it goes on this journey from hand to hand, and the people it effects are the people who actually overthrew governments, and then they pass it on… it has a huge impact in the critical points of our modern history.
Once you reach your Kickstarter goal, what is the next step?
We are very close to the Kickstarter goal, which we set at the minimum we would need to go forward and we really need to exceed it to reach everyone we want to with this film. We were concerned about how it would play out on Kickstarter being a British production but we’ve been stunned by the response. We’re the biggest British film Kickstarter project yet which we’re really proud of. Crowdfunding is also a really lovely way to fund this project because it’s a film essentially about mobilizing popular support. The film is in edit and we will need quite an expensive grade and dub because of the use we’ve made of user generated content from the streets where these revolutions are taking place. We want to the film to feel like it’s made by the people actually doing this day to day under oppressive regimes but there are technical challenges associated with making that content viewable on a cinema screen. The next step is to take the film out to film festivals and we’re already in talks about having an international screening event on the same day. That would be an amazing thing to bring people together in what will be looked back on as the year of the revolutions.
Do you have an end in sight? When should people expect to look for your film?
We have the fine cut now, there is a film in existence, it’s there. It’s really just the money to grade it, do the sound engineering on it, and do the translations, because what’s usual about this film, is that before it’s been made, we have requests for translations from all over the world… So, we want to be able to provide it in those and other languages as well. Again, that’s what’s special about this film; it’s a great story in itself, but it’s also a great resource for people, and there’s going to be a great demand for it out there.
It’s been entered into Toronto, so it could be seen as early as September if Toronto accepts it. And then Boston is next on the schedule, which is a home to the film, so it will be nice to be there.
Note: In the 24 hours since this interview, the project has passed it’s initial funding goal. However, whenever one sees this, they should remember that due to Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing fundraising policy (the artist will only be paid if their goal is met), many filmmakers will set a more modest goal, and any additional funds will do get good in helping this film get made.