Ruaridh Arrow’s 'How to Start a Revolution' profiles scholar Gene Sharp, a former Korean War–era draft resister who became the world’s leading expert in nonviolent revolution.

Changes You Can Believe In at SF DocFest

Robert Avila October 13, 2011

Documenting revolutions at this year’s DocFest.

DocFest has a well-earned reputation for knocking the stuffiness out of a pretty sober word. The 10-year-old festival founded by IndieFest’s Jeff Ross has taken pride in equating “documentary” with the unconventional and idiosyncratic—fare that celebrates the offbeat, the weird, the wondrous. I’m thinking of wiener-dog races, yes, but that’s just the tip of the beast. This year’s festival (October 14–27), which opens at the Roxie with a profile of the creator of MDMA (Etienne Sauret’s Dirty Pictures) and ends with a look at a comic-book super-author (With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story), provides another reliably healthy mix of subjects and approaches at least as diverse as anything at the multiplex, and likely much more so.

But while this admirable programming bent (further leavened by a penchant for parties and roller disco) has helped make DocFest one of the more popular and laidback offerings in the Bay Area’s film festival calendar, its wide net has never refused more serious themes. As masses of ordinary American citizens rise in public protest across the country to change an oppressive status quo, it’s hard not to note with enthusiasm a certain relevant streak of revolution—personal and social—running through the 2011 program.

See, first of all, filmmaker Ruaridh Arrow’s How to Start a Revolution, his biographical profile of scholar Gene Sharp, a former Korean War–era draft resister who became the world’s leading expert in nonviolent revolution. Sharp and his non-profit Albert Einstein Institution (named for the great physicist and pacifist) operate out of the ground floor of his Boston home, in relatively humble circumstances that contrast strikingly with his importance to literally millions of people. The Institution’s staff consists of two: the elderly Sharp—who when not tending to the world’s struggles against tyranny gingerly ascends the stairs to tend to a beloved orchid garden—and executive director Jamila Raqib, a 30-something Afghani-born American who relates her own passionate conversion to nonviolent struggle after encountering Sharp’s work.

How to Start a Revolution examines the recent popular uprisings in Egypt, Serbia, Burma, Iran, and beyond in light of the significant but not widely known contribution made by Sharp’s ideas, in particular as laid out in his 1993 handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. That book’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” have served as a tactical playbook for activists internationally, according to several firsthand accounts here.

The book was written out of a necessity to address the conditions in one country, Burma, after Robert Helvey, a retired U.S. army colonel and one of Sharp’s staunchest advocates in the film, asked the scholar to help with an operation to aid Burmese resistance fighters. It took the generic form of a handbook, according to Sharp (interviewed here in his Boston home, which also serves as headquarters for the tiny Albert Einstein Institution), because he knew too little about Burma in particular.

Well regarded in his field if not exactly a household name, Sharp, now in his 80s, has had a profound influence on the character and success of popular opposition movements the world over, argues How to Start a Revolution, which incorporates a plentiful selection of candid images from mass actions in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. Arrow’s generally persuasive if sometimes simplistic profile looks to give Sharp his due, while spreading the salutary notion that oppressive regimes are susceptible to overthrow without bloodshed by a public focused on undermining the sources of a regimes legitimacy, and hence its power.

There are complexities and controversies surrounding Sharp and his work that the film addresses with mixed success, including the charge—stemming from diverse quarters, including Hugo Chavez and the Iranian government—that Sharp is in the employ of the CIA. Such accusations are forcefully rejected here and admittedly hard to credit anyway given the sources. At the same time, one gets the impression that the complex relationship between Sharp’s work and the varied interests of the US government and its foreign policy is a subject meriting further discussion. Moreover, the credit Sharp and his book doubtless deserve can run the risk here of being emphasized at the expense of other factors and influences. Nevertheless, when a key organizer of Cairo’s Tahrir Square acknowledges the usefulness of an Arabic version of Sharp’s book (among other sources of ideas) in the movement to overthrow Mubarak, the film makes a valid contribution to our understanding of that remarkable story that takes nothing away from the accomplishment of the Egyptian people themselves.

The most compelling and in-depth case pursued here, however, is that of Otpor, Serbia’s popular, youth-led, decentralized, and successful opposition movement against the Milosevic government. In a fascinating interview, Otpor’s Srdja Popovic describes at some length the importance of Sharp’s book in the development of a broad-based strategy that took popular support—including police and military support—away from Milosevic, making possible the final toppling of his regime in 2000.

DocFest pursues the outright political through several other films this year, including Patagonia Rising, about a popular Chilean movement opposing a plan for five hydroelectric dams and the environmental damage it threatens to unleash; The After Party (The Last Party 3), detailing a cinematographer’s accidental involvement in a major first-amendment case revealing disturbing depths of police corruption and domestic surveillance; and Where Soldiers Come From, a series of interviews with a group of childhood friends who have come back from war by Heather Courtney (Letter from the Other Side, DocFest 2006).

But the theme of social transformation winds its way compellingly through some more out of the way stories, including the lives of a handful of contemporary South African artists of varying levels of success profiled in The Creators. Laura Gamse’s somewhat choppy and uneven but otherwise rare and wholly worthwhile look at post-apartheid Cape Town, including nearby and still underdeveloped, poverty-ridden Cape Flats. Intriguingly blending the voices and experiences of artists in varying disciplines (including opera, hip hop, performance, and street art), The Creators explores artistic expression as a bellwether of social unrest and social possibilities, linking a broad set of creative endeavors with a transformation in awareness and values from the streets and townships of today’s South Africa.

Closer to home, Keirda Bahruth’s excellent Bob and the Monster details the social context and redeeming social aspects of a remarkable tale of personal invention and re-invention. A wholly entertaining yet serious and moving profile of Bob Forrest, former front man for the 1980s Los Angeles band Thelonious Monster who today heads Hollywood Recovery Services (an addiction treatment center he founded in 2010), the film proves unexpectedly multifaceted. Assembling wonderfully candid, pretentious-less interviews amid a treasure of archival footage and some choice animation, Bahruth spins a lively, graceful and intelligent film that is partly a rousing history of the 1980s LA music scene, partly a personal story of addiction and self-discovery, partly a tale of the corruptions and temptations of fame (as the music industry was becoming the real monster), and partly an incisive critique of therapeutic culture. But it’s the eloquence, honesty, and humility of Forrest himself that makes Bob and the Monster finally irreducible and unique, even as it echoes an idea running far more widely just now about a different and better future built on solidarity.

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