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5 Films About Revolution

Jason is a partner at Worker Studio Animation in Colorado. He's been writing about cinema as an entertainment journalist for nearly 20 years

Public Domain art by Carlos Latuff

Public Domain art by Carlos Latuff

5 Films About Revolution: The Arab Spring

The year 2011 saw revolutionary waves of protests in the Middle East and North Africa that took the world by storm. Dubbed the "Arab Spring," it began in Tunisia, and spread all through the region in civil wars, as well as massive demonstrations and protests to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, among other countries. This of course is only one region, and small revolutions rise up every year all over the world. Still, the Arab Spring was an important time for the revolutionary-minded, capturing a moment in time in a media always looking for the next big headline.

Author Henry David Thoreau would have been proud as hundreds of thousands partook in "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau's words are brilliant, but film is my point of reference, so here are 5 movies that taught me about revolutions. While there have been a great many important documentary films made about the various Arab Spring uprisings, these 5 movies carry a personal weight that can measure universally.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The country of Algeria was actually one of the first to see protests erupt in December of 2010. Algeria's revolutionary roots are bloodied by violent outbreaks between 1954 and 1962 during the French occupation. Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo made the landmark film, The Battle of Algiers, little more than 2 years after the Algerian War. The film is styled as a documentary, but engages a complex narrative with the use of street actors.

The film is sometimes screened for military studies of terrorism and urban guerrilla warfare, and has even screened at institutions like the Pentagon as recently as 2004. Today the film is studied for its astute and accurate portrayal of the motivations behind terrorism, along with its neorealist cinematic storytelling techniques. Retrospectively, it is a groundbreaking and important film, but it came with is share of controversy when released in 1966, receiving a ban in France for 5 years.

Gandhi (1982)

Richard Attenborough's biopic Gandhi, starring Ben Kingsley garnered them both respective Oscars, additional to Best Picture. While the film received some criticism from historians, but was widely well received critically, and remains a culturally essential study on Mahatma Gandhi's life in nonviolent protests. Gandhi is the grandfather of nonviolent protest, which many of the recent protests are rooted in. Talking about the history of nonviolent resistance without mentioning Gandhi is like splicing Eadweard Muybridge from the history of cinema.

The film was a sweeping success of cinema, at the box office, in its cultural influence and also the numerous accolades, including 11 Academy Award nominations and 8 wins. It is a film justly epic in scope, but intimate in portrayal and performance. Surely the filmmakers felt this was owed to a man who carried the weight of his nation of India, and the progress of humanity along his path in life.

The Motorcycle Diaries

A beautiful film from the wonderful director Walter Salles, The Motorcycle Diaries stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The film gives pertinent insight on the origins of a revolutionary, showing how the seed of unrest gets planted years before branching into action. Where Gandhi is the grandfather of nonviolent resistance, Che is like the poster-child of revolutions.

The film is based on the journals of Che Guevara, along with writings from his travel companion, Alberto Granada. The story, along with his gorgeous cinematography captures their journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, all set to a wonderful musical score from Gustavo Santaolalla.

So often the interest and understanding of revolutions is on the act of protest or violence in some cases, that define the uprising. What the Motorcycle Diaries does so wonderfully is to personalize the origin and seeds of revolution that start well before the uprising. A revolution is never one man or woman, but as the case with Che Guevara, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., that individual can embody the spirit of a people and give them a voice.

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Persepolis (2007)

The French animated film from Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, is an intimate adaptation of her graphic novel of the same name. It traces Satrapi's upbringing during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent revolutionary backlash. As Satrapi learns, life and revolutions don't always go as planned. With insight and humorous sentimentality, Satrapi's film makes the case that revolutions must come from within.

Broadcasting the film itself came with an uprising all it's own for a Tunisian television station owner. Islamic militants attacked his station after Persepolis was aired and the Tunisian courts attempted to quash his free speech and fined him for airing controversial content. This occurred in 2011, after the Tunisian revolution spurred the Arab Spring.

A film like Persepolis has a grittiness and intimacy that is easily lost in storytelling. It is because the source comes from the voice of the affected, from the heart and soul of a revolution. Satrapi may have not started a revolution, but she lived it in the only way she knew how and her reflection is pure. She does not paint the Iranian Revolution as the grand idea of change that so many revolutions are conveyed as. It's messy, confusing, hypocritical, as well as empowering and exhausting all the same.

V for Vendetta

With lyric dialogue, vigilante swashbuckling and a genuine distaste for fascism, the Wachowski Siblings production of Alan Moore's graphic novel, V for Vendetta is an emotionally charged thriller. It is about ideas that inspire revolutions; as V says in the film, "Ideas are bulletproof." The film is also homage to the romance of revolutions, giving us the motto, "A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having." Again, the theme of revolution here fundamentally begins with individual motivation; like vengeance.

Cinematically, the film's influence is wide reaching, especially in the adoption of the Gay Fawkes mask used in the film, by groups like the hackers Anonymous. Visually, the use of the Mask in the film carries the comic book styling for the revolutionary character at the heart of V for Vendetta. The mask also punctuates a key climatic scene in the film, when waves of supporters turn out all wearing the mask to see Guy Fawkes's revolutionary legacy fulfilled in exploding the British parliament building.

Attack on a peaceful demonstration in the film "Doctor Zhivago" (1965)

Attack on a peaceful demonstration in the film "Doctor Zhivago" (1965)

Honorable Mentions

Journalists in Revolutions:

  • Oliver Stone's Salvador
  • Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire

Revolutionary Love:

  • John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs
  • David Lean's Doctor Zhivago

Revolutionary Laughs:

  • Woody Allen's Bananas
  • Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest

Mel Gibson's Guide to Revolutions:

  • Braveheart
  • The Patriot

Labor Revolutions:

  • Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus
  • Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth
Still image from "Salt of the Earth" (1954)

Still image from "Salt of the Earth" (1954)

A New Hope

There is a film that ingrained revolutionary themes deep in my developing subconscious, as it did for many at a young age. Coincidently, its backdrop also begins in Tunisia. It was there that George Lucas re-imagined the Tunisian desert as the location for Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine in filming Star Wars. Beneath Tunisian skies the young Skywalker filled his dream for something more, accompanied by the ever-moving John Williams score. Whether it's Tunisia, a Galaxy far, far away or your own backyard, revolutions begin as ideas that fuel a desire for change.

A revolution is more than a movie, and certainly most historical events cannot be understood alone by cinema. The hope can only be that the viewing inspires the first step to learning and awareness, to empowering your own movements, or sympathizing with those who struggle.

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