Greg Barker’s We Are the Giant is less an incisive activist documentary than an endless barrage of pandering, politically minded statements and quotations, all meant to reduce the various violent international conflicts discussed throughout to a naïve anthem for citizen rebellion. Barker makes these callow aesthetic aims clear immediately by opening with a quote from Che Guevara, cueing the film’s incessant inspirational rock soundtrack, which plays over a montage of colonialist rule and state oppression via historical images and maps dissolving into one another, which eventually comes full circle into the 21st century. American civil rights, Gandhi, Arab Spring—all are treated with an equal lens by Barker’s gross mythologizing of historical resistance, made even more abject by his decision to end the montage with a series of tweets and various forms of social media as graphical overlay. Before a talking head has even appeared, Barker renders centuries of bloodshed and sacrifice as a privileged act of mediated glad-handing. As such, We Are the Giant begins and proceeds as a deeply problematic kumbaya for negotiating civil unrest, insistent that knowing pithy quotes from prominent rebels and establishing negotiable binaries between “kinds of heroes” can alleviate the ails of predominately non-Western nations.
It’s less an incisive activist documentary than an endless barrage of pandering, politically minded statements and quotations.
When the film’s subjects do appear, Barker elects to transform their statements of varying insight into a feature-length motivational screed, where the upbeat music rarely ceases, and every declaration of injustice amounts to functional equivalents of “someone needs to take a stand.” Barker’s stand, as it were, is certainly empathetic to his subjects, but borderline exploitative in how he chooses to shape their sentiments into postcard-level expressions of hope, usually with social media as the anchoring force. Barker charts three pairs of family members/friends, each on-the-ground members of resistance movements in Benghazi, Syria, and Bahrain, respectively. Osama is Muhannad’s father and explains his son’s double consciousness of having grown up in Virginia, but being very much tied to the developing unrest in Libya throughout the early 2000s. Syrian friends Motaz and Ghassan lead a series of “flower protests” in Syria against Assad, despite the unceasing bombings and murders of peaceful protesters. And, finally, Maryam and Zainab risk arrest for remaining in Bahrain, given their father’s prior, public criticisms of Al-Khalifa’s monarchy.
Barker offers each of the three stories in relative succession, using footage from past (mostly Western) struggles for transitions between them. Maryam and Zainab receive the most screen time (almost the last half of the film), as Barker attempts simultaneously to explain the specifics of their thoroughly familial ties to strife, while suggesting a more intricate interweaving of the narratives by seeking to draw parallels across contemporaneous movements of the Arab Spring. Yet at no point does Barker display an attunement toward demythologizing any notion of valiant rebellion in the face of tyranny, such that his rhetoric becomes beholden to emblazoning his subjects as warriors of peaceful aggression.
Even worse is the constant presence of tweets and social media as arbiters for rebellion, inclusions that make no effort to question the imprisoning implications of network-based communication as modus operandi for dismantling governmental rule. When Barker cues Sigur Rós’s “Festival” for the outro, with tweets invading the screen and a voiceover insisting that “we want a happy ending for all that are suffering,” We Are the Giant ironically reveals its intent to suture shut any remote ambivalence regarding its own gung-ho ethos, in effect engaging the same sort of oppressively dogmatic tactics it so outwardly denigrates.