Gene Sharp might be best understood as the Bill “Moneyball” James of nonviolent revolution—a mercurial hybrid of impartial, academic observer, and meticulous admirer less interested in the symbolic thrill of the event than in how scientific principles are played out in the backstage minutiae. Both men have also been independent by necessity, beloved until recently only by those who were similarly besotted with the mechanics of grassroots politics and sports, respectively, or those who recognized the potential yield in adopting the pearls of their research. That said, the connection between baseball and worldwide passive resistance is likely to sound a bit bonkers without the pop-cultural connective tissue of two lionizing films that make the same blunders, the now Oscar-nominated fiction movie Moneyball (about an adoptee of James’s theories) and the documentary How to Start a Revolution (about Sharp directly). Both are as generic and histrionic as their ostensible subjects are unorthodox and sober.
How to Start a Revolution, with its relentless, typewriter-font title cards and arpeggiated score, plays more like a trailer to the insurrection coming soon to our respective neighborhoods than a primer on Sharp’s work or its influence. First starting with a cursory description of his seminal publication, From Dictatorship to Democracy, and a few factoids on its background (we’re told that Albert Einstein wrote a “nice introduction,” but little else about his correspondence with Sharp), the film then plows through a series of revolutionary anecdotes from around the world meant to illustrate some of the cornerstone ingredients of Sharp’s recipe for overthrow. Presumably the handful of “lessons” that are allotted title cards, such as “#2: Overcome Atomisation,” are meant to accuulate into a Reader’s Digest edition of the book’s original 198 steps, but it’s not entirely clear what’s being summarized, or for whom the lessons are intended.
Much of this content, which involves complex social movements in Burma, Iran, and elsewhere, is necessarily abridged, but it’s often done so to the point of incoherence, making Sharp’s connection to what we’re seeing seem contrived. At one point, Srdja Popovic, leader of the Serbian group Otpor! whose actions influenced the foundering of Milosevic, describes how attracting police agents to the side of liberation was a matter of discourse. “They were victims in blue uniforms, we were victims in blue jeans,” he cogently says, adding that individuals who self-identify as victims will never fight other acknowledged victims. Irrespective of the fact that Popovic had a copy of Sharp’s tome with him in the revolution’s early days, the relationship between this provocative material and Sharp’s theories is all but obscured by the thin glossing the latter is given by the film’s brevity. (We hear something about locating “pillars” of authority and then finding ways to topple those, which I suppose is germane.)
The point, of course, is that Sharp starts revolutions, he doesn’t actually carry them out, and inevitable confusion throughout How to Start a Revolution can be mitigated by occasional self-reminders of that distinction. (We hear from a few highly fascinating people who do actually train and assist grassroots armies, such as Sharp colleague and retired U.S. Army Colonel Robert Helvey, but their praise stops short of providing testimony as to how the documentary subject’s work has influenced specific tactics.) Even if Sharp provides the initial, sparking template, the extent to which he can truly take credit for the big, blubbering Egyptian Spring climax, where we watch thousands weeping and dancing in the streets after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, may be more marginal than the film would have us accept. (We’re left to surmise.) Then again, chopping out that valedictory victory would place flinch-inducing focus on the words of Sharp’s twentysomething female assistant at the Albert Einstein Institution, who describes her admiration for her employer as “very personal” and the fact that his books are being used to overthrow tyrants as “very cool.”
Documentaries that recount the steps of nonviolent insurgence have the capacity to incite and abet change; PBS’s Bringing Down a Dictator, for example, has popped up as handbook of practical inspiration in Georgia and the aforementioned Egypt since its broadcast in the early 2000s. Ironically, however, How to Start a Revolution lacks the narrative forensics required to help interested viewers take steps into the looking glass of uprising it portrays. The blend of emotionalism and sociopolitical froth in place of that instruction, aside from confusing Sharp’s essential contributions to global democracy, constitutes a moral compromise.