A Whisper to a Roar
This straightforward and insightful documentary takes a journalistic look at five cases of people rising up against a tyrant, why and how it happened, and what came after. Some of the democratic efforts succeeded partially, others failed miserably, and other movements are still unfolding.
Writer/director Ben Moses focuses on nations who have experienced uprising over the last 20 years, so “A Whisper to a Roar” has a sense of urgency. Many of the events depicted may be familiar to people who follow the news closely, but he takes his camera behind the scenes, supplementing archival footage with interviews of many of the key players opposing a tyrant.
There’s a strong sense of getting at the story behind the story.
What’s most interesting about this film is that it does not view these uprisings with rose-colored glasses. Indeed, Moses is careful to relate how many of the dictatorial regimes themselves started as populist movements. Inevitably, though, power becomes a detrimental influence, and the forces of change are transformed into the entrenched entity that seems intent only on staying in control.
The cycle is repeated, again and again.
The film illustrates this elegantly with an animated interlude about the mythical story of a small Far East village tormented by a wrathful dragon. A local warrior is recruited to battle the great wyrm, and defeats it. But over time the warrior grows used to the exultation, and becomes the tyrant he vanquished.
The documentary focuses on Venezuela, Ukraine, Egypt, Malaysia and Zimbabwe. The Venezuela stuff is the most compelling, since Moses actually filmed during the 2010 election and shows the events as they unfold. Students take to the streets to fight Chavez’ strangle hold on the legislature and media.
Also engaging is the portion on Egypt, showing the buildup to the massive demonstrations at Tahrir Square that eventually brought about the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Segments on the Orange Revolution in Ukraine opposition and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party thuggery in Zimbabwe are a little less impactful, since they rely more on news footage than contemporary interviews.
Least compelling is the unrest in Malaysia against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who became resentful of the meteoric rise of his protégé and deputy prime minster, Anwar Ibrahim. When Ibrahim sought to expose shady business deals by Mohamad’s sons, the ruler had him jailed on obviously trumped-up sodomy charges – something sure to incite passions in this largely Muslim country.
Interestingly, Mohamad is the only one of the dictators who actually appears for an interview, and comes across as a kindly grandfather figure who is disappointed in his understudy having turned out so wrong. That’s not the whole story, of course, but Moses doesn’t do much to push back in the interview. The Malaysia segment ends up feeling like a power struggle between two jealous leaders rather than a mass uprising of the people against an autocrat.
The segments on each country are not depicted one by one, but instead are split up and shown unfolding simultaneously – with the rise of the opposition in one tale dovetailing with that of the others.
The stories turned out very different. In Ukraine the democratic process was successful and Viktor Yuschchenko elected. But then the reformist coalition fell apart and he was voted out of office in favor of the man he had defeated in the supposedly tide-turning election.
In Zimbabwe, Mugabe bowed to pressure from other African nations but not in a really meaningful way, turning over a small portion of his power to challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. Mohamad retired of his own volition, and Chavez remains a South American strongman who may only be removed from power by his current health concerns.
In Egypt, things are still happening even as “A Whisper to a Roar” unspools from the film projector. Will the new ruling forces there, having slayed the dragon, take on his mantle? This movie is a compelling exploration of the power to corrupt.