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How To Start A Revolution (2011,UK)


Director: Ruaridh Arrow

Once in a while a film comes along that changes the way you look at the world. Sometimes a film can transcend the basic function to entertain or inform and can prove to be genuinely inspirational. How To Start A Revolution is just such a film. It’s a documentary (the debut film from Ruaridh Arrow) profiling the life’s work of Gene Sharp. Who’s Gene Sharp? The unsung hero of non-violent regime change across the globe, that’s who.

In his book, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, Sharp outlines 198 methods of non-violent rebellion designed to instigate the fall of despotic regimes. Surprising as it may seem, while you may not have heard of the man or his book you have seen the results. Sharp’s tactics have been employed in many countries across the globe including Burma and Serbia and most recently in the Middle East during the Arab Spring revolutions to unseat dictators by peaceful means. It’s pretty impressive stuff.

The film is a revelatory experience. While Sharp is the first to point out he has not had a direct hand in any of the uprisings that have employed his methods, the gestation and dissemination of his strategies is tracked back to a handful of individuals – Sharp, his long time collaborator (and retired Colonel and Vietnam veteran) Bob Helvey, his protege and Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution that Sharp founded Jamila Raqib, the leader of the Serbian Otpor movement Srda Popovic who not only sucessfully implemented Sharp’s tactics but went on to teach them to others and a small number of others. A direct line is drawn from Sharp’s original ideas to real, significant, global change.

There’s a strong argument to say that Arrow got lucky with his timing. During the production the Arab Spring revolutions took hold in the Middle East giving the filmmakers the opportunity to witness a Sharp style non-violent revolution taking place first hand. The film contains some quite startling images of the Tahrir square protests, obtained at no small risk to the director’s personal safety. This adds an extra dimension to the film, highlighting the fact that this isn’t a question of historical events but is dealing very much with the present and the future, that Sharp’s work has drawn from the mistakes of the past to find a better way. While the timing of the Egyptian uprising may have been fortuitous, the decision to experience it for himself on the ground must have taken some nerve and has to respected. I wonder how many other filmmakers would take those kinds of risks?

The footage of the revolutions (whether archive or first hand) proves a stark contrast to the interview footage with Gene and Jamila in their peaceful two room office in Boston, or Bob Helvey sitting in his garden with his dogs. Some of the clips from Syria are particularly disturbing, highlighting the bravery of the people who are rising up in the face of their opressors. The juxtaposition serves as a further reminder of how far Sharp’s ideas have travelled, taking on a life of their own and spurring people on in the face of fear and suffering.

It’s worth pointing out that the film is already making waves. It was partially funded via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter where it promptly set records for the amount of support it garnered (support that included some famous names such as director Richard Linklater). Currently doing the rounds at film festivals it has picked up awards at the Boston Film Festival and London’s Raindance Festival and if you ask me, rightly so. While Gene Sharp himself may remain humble about his influence there can be little argument about the import of his work and it is mind blowing to me that nobody has made a film like this about him before.

Ultimately, this is no mere documentary about an academic, this is a film about the modern world and about how we ultimately decide to shape it. The fact that a softly spoken, ageing professor working out of a tiny office has brutal dictators and their security services across the globe quaking in their jack boots is surely enough to give hope to us all that there is a better way out of this mess we are in than bullets and bombs and serves to remind us all that with the right planning and organisation people really can affect change without resorting to violence. Everybody should see this.

For more information on when and where you can see How To Start A Revolution, visit the film’s official website.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 13/10/2011 00:25

    I absolutely want to see this! I didn’t even know about this movie.

    I was quite involved in the study and practice of civil action when I was in grad school. I was arrested at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in non-violent civil actions, and on other occasions I acted as support for people who were arrested in similar actions. It’s a very powerful (and scary) position to be in; standing up for your beliefs when big armored people with guns, tear gas and other stuff are coming at you! And then getting hauled away. However, I never put my life on the line like these people did! The stakes weren’t as high.

    Thanks again, Andy!

    • 13/10/2011 23:10

      I can’t believe I’d never heard of Gene Sharp before this film came along. On the strength of this (and in fairness it is a very pro-Sharp film) the fact he hasn’t been recognised before now for his work is baffling. I’ll try and find out when and how you will get a chance to see it and let you know!

      • 14/10/2011 00:42

        I did a little investigating of my own. I’m sure I’ll get to see it eventually, but I’m sorry I missed it in Boston.

        I don’t know how I never heard of Gene Sharp either! I took a course in Peacemaking and he never came up. Amazing! His books are by very small publishers so that could account for his obscurity. I hope this film gives him and his ideas some attention.

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