The world-conquering British documentary 'How to Start a Revolution' is making a star of Gene Sharp, a shy Boston academic who writes how-to books for revolutionaries.
'How to Start a Revolution'
From his shabby town house in Boston, Massachusetts, an octagenarian American university professor grows rare orchids – and inspires revolutions. The writings of 83-year-old political scientist Dr Gene Sharp are credited with providing the blueprint for the overthrow of governments in Serbia, Ukraine, Guatemala and Indonesia and, most recently, with revving up the activists who launched the Arab Spring.
“Oh no,” he says, with typical self-deprecation. “It is the people taking part in these struggles who deserve the credit. Not me.” The modesty of this Nobel Peace Prize nominee has kept him out of the spotlight for most of his life. Now, an independent British film which is capturing the hearts of audiences at film festivals around the world is slowly but surely turning him into a global superstar.
How to Start a Revolution, which recently picked up the Best Documentary award at the Raindance independent film festival in London, features plenty of rousing archive footage of revolutionaries clambering over the barricades alongside more recent newsreel of protestors in the Middle East. But the most moving scenes show nothing more than a man in his twilight years, stooped over his computer or tending his beloved flowers. Sharp shuffles around his flat, waters his orchids, looks levelly into the camera and tells us, with a confidence that is never less than utterly credible, that anyone can overcome tyranny without picking up a gun.
“As soon as you choose to fight with violence you’re choosing to fight against your opponents’ best weapons and you have to be smarter than that,” he says. “Psychological weapons, social weapons, economic weapons and political weapons [are] ultimately more powerful against oppression, tyranny and violence.”
When I speak to Sharp on the telephone from Boston a few days after a screening of the film at Harvard Law School, he sounds as humble as he appears on film. “I am bashful,” he says. “I am not used to all this personal attention.” He says the success of the film rests not on his hunched shoulders but on the bravery of ordinary people, who in the past 12 months alone have faced down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. “People long thought that violence was the real power,” he says. “It took a number of historical successes to prove that was not true any more.”
Sharp has been writing “how to” books for revolutionaries for the past 50 years. The most famous, From Dictatorship to Democracy, is a 1993 pamphlet that propses 198 methods of non-violent resistance, from rude gestures to mock funerals. Once described as “more powerful than any bomb”, it is banned in many countries but, more often than not, the battered little book can be found lying in the dust after a crowd of revolutionaries have stormed the streets.
Its philosphies have been acted out in some of the most successful non-violent uprisings of recent years. The “orange revolution” in Ukraine that used a colour to unite people, the housewives of Serbia banging pots and pans to drown out the pronouncements of state radio, even the disarming, absurdist humour of climate change protesters dressed up as polar bears – all bear Gene Sharp’s hallmark. Think also of the more recent news footage from the Middle East: where, invariably, women, children and war veterans were pushed to the front of the crowd; where the signs were hand-written in English so foreign media could broadcast the message; where musicians made mocking tunes to taunt the soldiers.
Ruaridh Arrow, a young British television journalist covering revolutions around the world for Sky News, began to see the connection. When the Egyptian protests were at their height, he slept among the revolutionaries in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and interviewed them on camera. He noticed they all had first aid points, they made a point of cleaning the streets themselves after the protests to prove they were better than the regime and they made sure the police were on side before risking uprising. He also caught sight of dog-eared photocopies of Sharp’s work being passed around the crowds or emailed from one laptop to another.
Sharp’s central message, the glimmer of hope that would-be revolutionaries the world over have seized upon, is that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern – and that if the people can decide together to withhold that obedience, a regime will crumble. “Dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are,” says Sharp, “and people are never as weak as they think they are.”
“People think the last thing you need to do in a middle of a revolution is read a book,” says Arrow. “In fact, it is the first thing you should do.” Before the events of the Arab Spring, he had initially conceived his film as an academic project to record the work of an important political theorist. “I thought it was so important just to record Gene,” says Arrow. “But it has turned into something more.”
It soon became clear that forgoing holidays and selling his sofa on eBay was not enough to fund the film, so Arrow went to kickstarter.com, a “crowd-sourcing” website that asks individuals to make small donations to projects that they then have a share in. In only three weeks, the film raised more than £40,000, making it the biggest crowd-sourced British film so far. Arrow put the much of the money towards his filming trip to Cairo and to buying the rights to use archive footage in the film.
“When I started out, I thought it would be the most expensive home video ever made,” he says, “and it has turned into a political documentary that is the film phenomenon of 2011.”
The film continues to be rolled out at festivals around the world – tomorrow, you can catch it in Glasgow – and will be shown on British television in the New Year on Current TV, the UK arm of the Al Gore-backed liberal channel. There are also plans to make it available, eventually, on the internet, where a so-called apathetic generation is tweeting enthusiastically about a film that finally makes them feel they can bring about real political change.
How to Start a Revolution is the antithesis of a blockbuster, but its implications are explosive. Arrow predicts that 10 million people will have seen the film by the end of the year. “I thought it would be too academic but people do not want things to be dumbed down. There is a huge need for films that are quite detailed and empowering.”
“People turn violent because they feel there is nothing they can do,” he adds. “Gene Sharp’s book codifies from history the things you can do – techniques that are effective – in a single document for the first time.”
The trouble is that a film which makes the audience think can be dangerous viewing. For every success it has had, Arrow’s film has also encountered an equal number of snubs. It has been banned from film festivals everywhere from Abu Dhabi to South Korea and Arrow reports “funny things” happening with his phone. Many of his interviews ended up on the cutting room floor because of fears that showing them in cinemas could put the interviewees in danger from police states.
In Iran and Venezuela, television adverts have been made to warn unsuspecting members of the public against reading the works of the “dangerous secret agent” Dr Gene Sharp.
When I mention this, Sharp laughs. If he was a CIA front, he says, then perhaps he would not have had to struggle for funding for the past 50 years and still be living and working out of the same Boston town house.
In the film, we see him running the Albert Einstein Institution from his ground floor office with one sole member of staff, Jamila Raqib. The touching, almost father-daughter relationship between the pair and the soft light in which Arrow captures them add to a sense of elegy as we watch them quietly wade through mountains of paper in a dogged quest to promote an alternative to violence.
Sharp say he hesitated before letting a filmmaker into his house, but he is now delighted with the film. It may not provide answers, but at least it will show people there is an alternative. However, Sharp warns that “inspiration alone” is not enough. The most important thing in a revolution is to be prepared, and non-violent struggle is more complex than the brute strength of military power.
“Before you try anything, learn what the struggle is about, why it fails, why it works and why it succeeds,” he says. “Some revolutionaries think they know everything. They need to know that they do not. If you want to stage a successful revolution, you have to be willing to learn.”
You can read the original article on the Daily Telegraph website here.