Movies
1:59 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

The Arab Activists Who Refuse To Bow To The Giant

A new film, We Are The Giant, follows six people's stories during the Arab Spring revolutions. Tell Me More's Celeste Headlee finds out more about their motivation from activist Maryam Al Khawaja and co-producer Razan Ghalayini.

"What's driving them is love. It's not power driven. It's not about politics. It's really just about having a better life for your children, supporting the people that you love, and building a country that you're proud of," Ghalayini says.

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Now, it's been more than three years since a wave of protests took hold first in Tunisia and then all across the Arab world. A new documentary looks at the young people who made the sacrifices to push for regime change in places like Libya, Syria and Bahrain during the Arab Spring - people like Bahraini Zainab al-Khawaja.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE ARE THE GIANT")

ZAINAB AL-KHAWAJA: For centuries, a lot of Arabs have been feeling that no matter what I do nothing's going to change in this country. And that's why I can't quit. I can't give up. I've been arrested maybe seven times I think, and I have more than 13 cases against me in court. I do feel guilty when I leave my daughter. There are very, very tough choices, and a lot of times I tend to choose being an activist over being a mother or being a wife or being a daughter.

HEADLEE: Zainab's sister, Maryam, is also featured in the film "We Are The Giant." She joins us now. Welcome.

MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And also with us is the film's co-producer Razan Ghalayini. Welcome to the program as well, Razan.

RAZAN GHALAYINI: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Maryam, the title of the film actually comes from something your father told you and your sister when you were very young. What was that?

M. AL-KHAWAJA: When we were growing up, of course, we grew up in a very activist environment. And my father would always ask us questions without giving us an answer to make us think about things more critically. And so one of the things he told us as children was, you know, people are like this great big giant and the governments are like this very, very tiny man. Why is it that the giant will bow down to this tiny man?

And we would always be thinking, well, yeah. Why is it that, you know, a giant of that magnitude would actually allow himself to be controlled and in fear of this very small man, which is the government? And that was where the title of the movie came from is that the people are the giant and the governments, in comparison, are very tiny.

HEADLEE: And yet, Razan, your documentary shows very often why it is that the giant bows down to the little guy, right? I mean, what we see is, in some cases, some very violent reactions from a government, which may be small but has armed forces at its hands. Why did you focus on Syria, Libya and Bahrain?

GHALAYINI: We actually started off filming in more than just those three countries. And over time, while we watched the various revolutions change and we witnessed the ways the sort of legacy media outlets were covering the stories, we all decided to pick stories that weren't being told actually as much other ones. So Bahrain obviously has been nicknamed - and I'm sure there are comments about this - The Forgotten Revolution.

Syria was important to us because the Syrian revolution has been largely presented as a violent uprising, and it really did begin nonviolently and was a very organic revolution. And we really, you know, wanted to show that story and have that narrative be documented because so few people have. And then Libya, of course, is a very incredibly important sort of cautionary tale. So Greg, Julie, John, myself, Josh sat together and kind of thought that this pairing of these three would represent the revolutions in a way that haven't been represented.

HEADLEE: Maryam, you know, it's very difficult for me in my comfortable home here in the United States to imagine being put in the kind of position to make the decisions that you've made. You and your family, through multiple arrests, through beatings - I mean, your father was tortured - and I wonder when you're weighing personal safety, not just personal safety but your entire family's safety, how you decide that that calculation is still worth it, I mean, especially seeing what's happened in Syria? How do you still keep moving forward?

M. AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I mean, I think to some extent, it's because we grew up with that kind of mindset. I mean, my father has been through so much. I remember from 2001 until 2011, I saw my father coming home numerous times with marks of beatings on his back. And I always posed the same question to him is why do you continue doing what you're doing when the outcome is not what you want it to be? And he always told me someday you'll understand.

And I feel like I do have much more of an understanding of why we do what we do now after witnessing the revolutions, and not just Bahraini one but in general, whether we're talking about Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and others, is that if people are willing to continue to take to the streets and facing the guns, of course we have to continue going. Those people deserve not only our respect and solidarity but also for us to work for a better tomorrow for everyone.

But I think, you know, I can explain it with one simple example of why we do what we do. When the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which I'm the acting president for, we decided to do a campaign on ending impunity in Bahrain. And what we did was we publicized pictures and names of people that we had identified as being responsible for grave human rights violations.

I was very worried that because I'm not in Bahrain and the government can't punish me for the campaign that they would go after, especially, my sister and my father. And so I called up my mother and she said we did not go through what we did so that we can now start being afraid of the consequences. And she said you do what you think is right for the people of Bahrain and for our cause no matter the consequences.

HEADLEE: I just wanted to actually play another clip from the film in which you're talking about this very issue in terms of reporting human rights abuses in Bahrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE ARE THE GIANT")

M. AL-KHAWAJA: He started explaining this case to me where we received information from a very trusted source that this man had been tortured so badly that his face was unrecognizable. He talked about how he had been tortured psychologically, physically but also sexually. And I kept thinking - I was like, who could this be? Like, this case is very, very severe. So then he told me at the end - and right that it's Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. It was my father being beaten.

HEADLEE: When you found that out, when you found out this severe case of being beaten beyond recognition was your father, there must have been a moment, I assume, when you thought I have to stop.

M. AL-KHAWAJA: No. I mean, I never got to the point of thinking I have to stop. But I think, you know, this is the same poor judgment on part of the governments that they thought doing these things will push people to think we have to stop. But it actually has the opposite effect.

It has an effect of no, we must continue because this is the outcome because these are the consequences. We must continue. And, of course, it was very difficult not just finding out that my father had been tortured, but reading the details of how he was sexually assaulted by the police during his torture. I think that was the most difficult part. But I had to find strength within myself to be able to do the job that I need to do as a human rights defender and to put my emotions aside so that I can do the job.

HEADLEE: Razan, someone else that you feature in the film in Libya actually gave his life to the revolution. A 21-year-old American, Muhannad Ben-Sadik, left his home in Virginia and decided to fight with the rebels there in Libya. And here is a piece of his story told by his father, Osama. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE ARE THE GIANT")

MUHANNAD BEN-SADIK: I knew that my son he - what he did, he did to save this country. He didn't want nothing out of it. And when they heard about his story - American citizen, young, you know, smart, handsome and having all the opportunity to be out of Libya, he decided to stay and fight.

HEADLEE: Razan, I wonder what you learned about people's motivations seeing the sacrifices that people made - in Osama's case losing a son. What did you think about what keeps people in the struggle and what motivates them?

GHALAYINI: It's, like - that's such a tough question because you meet all these amazing people, and I have no idea where they find this kind of willpower and strength. People like Maryam and Zainab and Ben Muhanna (ph) and Hassan (ph) and Martas (ph), who are all in the film, are just - I think they're driven by the universal concept of living a life of self-dignity, not just for themselves but for the people that they love and their countrymen.

And I think it was - to me it was just something wonderful. It was a beautiful, like, sort of comradery. And I think when you go and you talk to these people that are revolutionaries, you see that what's driving them is love and very beautiful things. It's not power driven. It's not about politics. It's really just about having a better life for your children, supporting the people that you love and building a country that you're proud of.

HEADLEE: And one of the things that we kind of come away with in the film's portrayal of Syria is that neither armed revolution or peaceful revolution is working there either. What did you take away from your time filming in Syria?

And I understand you had to do some of this filling in secret. There's one shot where it looks like the cameramen almost gets hit by an explosive device. But what did you learn? There seems to be regret at how that revolution has gone.

GHALAYINI: Well, the Syrian revolution is a very sad story because it did begin nonviolently, and it was definitely one of the most pure revolutions to begin. It was started by nonviolent activists in the suburbs of Damascus. And they went for about 11 months, I would say, nonviolently and then slowly became armed with FSA.

HEADLEE: That's the Free Syrian Army.

GHALAYINI: Yeah, it's the Free Syrian Army. The foreign fighters came in, and then it became sort of a three-way battle between these foreign fighters, the nonviolent revolutionaries and the regime. And it's obviously a very sad story. And - but I don't think it's right to say that the revolution has failed because the revolution belongs to them, and they say it's still there. So I think that it's our job to kind of respect that and sort of help them find a place to be heard, which is why they're in the film.

HEADLEE: Well, let's - Maryam, let me ask you about the Arab Spring as a whole because I've read commentaries of people saying, wow, look, the Arab Spring - we thought it was going to be this massive wave of change. And yet, you know, it's turned out to really fizzle out in many places or turn out not as well as we'd hoped. What do you say to people who say they're disappointed in the Arab Spring?

M. AL-KHAWAJA: Well, I think, you know, it's easy to become disappointed and pessimistic about what's going on and the way that things have developed. But also, if we look at world history, we'll see that it's something that is actually very realistic. I mean, how long did it take for the French revolution to actually turn into a democracy?

GHALAYINI: Even the American revolution, actually. There was about 11 years between the end of the Revolutionary War and our constitution.

M. AL-KHAWAJA: Exactly. So it's - I think it's a progress. And I think that the way that we're headed only makes sense that it happened the way that it did, whether we're looking at the military control in Egypt or the way that things are going in Syria and so on. But what we have to remember is that if we stop now, what we go back to is something worse than what we started with in 2011.

HEADLEE: Maryam al-Khawaja is a human rights activist from Bahrain. Razan Ghalayini is a Palestinian-American documentary filmmaker who coproduced "We Are The Giant." They joined us from our bureau in New York. The film is being shown at festivals now. It's slated for general release in the fall. Thank you both so much.

M. AL-KHAWAJA: Thank you.

GHALAYINI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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