(This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)
Have we entered a golden age of global activism? Uprisings have been sprouting regularly for several years, grabbing headlines and changing political agendas at the highest levels. What, if anything, do these various movements have in common?
The inspired new documentary from the Riahi Brothers, Everyday Rebellion, answers this question by focusing on method. The film lovingly examines contemporary global nonviolence in its diversity and creativity, building on recent academic research showing that nonviolent resistance movements have been twice as effective in the past century in achieving their stated goals compared with violent resistance movements.
Experts in nonviolence research and philosophy reinforce stories at the grass roots as the film brings us into streets and homes, crisscrossing continents and causes. The Riahi Brothers, who were born in Iran and raised in Austria, paint gracefully with a broad brush. They deal head-on with the harsh realities of human life, but the tone never strays too far from hopeful and optimistic. If one image characterizes Everyday Rebellion, it is probably the extended shot of a balloon dancing amid city traffic, somehow managing to avoid getting crushed.
Among many stops on a whirlwind tour, we spend time in Madrid with the Indignados; in Tehran with the Green revolutionaries; with members of FEMEN in Kiev, Paris and Stockholm; with Occupy Wall Street in New York; and with Syrian activists devoted to nonviolent resistance against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Adroit editing reveals the underlying thematic links between these movements by emphasizing overlaps in their content, such as how they respond to state violence. In this way, the film reminds us that these are not isolated struggles; what may appear to be disparate movements inspire, feed off and even communicate with each other.
The film documents an enormous variety of nonviolent tactics being used around the world. Tools on display range from pingpong balls, helium balloons, candles, cooking utensils, hair clips and ice cubes to jokes, graffiti campaigns, naked bodies, mock tribunals and public fountains dyed blood red.
The heart of the film lies in the segments where the political meets the personal. Particularly moving is the story of Inna Shevchenko, a FEMEN organizer from Ukraine known for her bold, bare-breasted direct actions. She was forced to flee her native country in 2012 after facing death threats and getting stalked by the Ukrainian secret police. (She told me that she continues to receive death threats to this day, adding that when audience members at festival screenings come up to give her hugs she can’t help but wonder if they might try to attack.) Watching her train new activists in France, where she was granted political asylum, and seeing how FEMEN also faces severe violence there, we sense how nonviolent struggles are fundamentally borderless.
Ultimately, we witness only a smattering of such struggles. Properly told, this film would never really end. The Riahi Brothers seem to understand this limitation instinctually, which is why they have decided to promote the documentary as one piece of an innovative cross-media project; in addition to the film, they are developing an educational website and a smartphone app that uses augmented reality technology, maps that show where global nonviolent action is taking place in real time, and a telecommunications tool that can circumvent Internet shutdowns. The tech-savvy brothers have a keen sense of how – beyond mere clicktivism – digital tools can be applied to social justice work in the streets. (These projects can all be followed at EverydayRebellion.net.)
I had the opportunity to sit down with Arash and Arman Riahi at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) in November, where Everyday Rebellion had its world premiere and won the 2013 Audience Award.
What was your inspiration for making this film?
Arash Riahi: It was going to be a film about Iran, and it was even called Iran Revolution. And then history kind of overruled us. The Arab Spring happened – no one expected that. 2011 was a year in which a lot of things were happening all over, and we started to see a pattern, a pattern of horizontal revolutions, uprisings with no leadership, where the people did their own media. We thought, O.K., let’s analyze that. We realized there is a connection and that if we want to make a film that remains in time and one that you can learn from – without making it too preachy – we have to make it universal. We cannot go into what’s happening in daily politics here or there. We have to find out what is this core, inner logic or inner element of all these fights. And the core conflict is the fight for a more just world.
How did you find the people in the film and how did you choose which footage to keep in the final edit?
Arash Riahi: We started with research and decided early to include Srdja Popovic because [Otpor, the Milosevic-era Serbian nonviolent resistance group] managed to overthrow a dictator. Early on we read his book Nonviolent Struggle: 50 Crucial Points.
Arman Riahi: Popovic is also now a nonviolence consultant, and he’s been invited by the movements to inspire them, to make lectures and workshops. He seemed to be the right guy, and we had the feeling that he was on the right side. He’s someone who wants to give people tools for nonviolence and encourage them to be strategic and to think about what they do and to stay disciplined. From there we went to Krakow and to Copenhagen, and we got to know Erica Chenoweth [co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press)] and other activists.
With Occupy we didn’t have a direct connection to the movement, but we just went to New York for the first time in November 2011. The second time we went to New York, we really got deep into the heart of the movement. One connection led to another. We just followed the trails. The good thing was that all these movements were connected. …
After one and a half years of shooting, we had several stories. We had Occupy, and we had Indignados, and we had Syria and Iran and so on. And we had to focus on a story; we couldn’t make a film with five to seven movements with four protagonists in each country. So we focused on the strongest points of each movement conveyed by one character. In Spain, it was the fact that the people are together and there is such a big community and they work together. You can say this is something that many of the movements have, but in Spain it was very obvious. One guy was threatened by an eviction; he was our main protagonist in Spain initially, but the main protagonist became the community that helped him to stay in his home. So we knew, O.K., the story in Spain will focus on this point. The story in New York focused on how can we organize, how can we plan a day of action, and why do we do it anyway? In Iran, it was a story of how resistance can survive under the worst circumstances, under big and radical oppression by the regime. If you can’t go out on the streets and speak publicly against the regime, how can you still make resistance, small acts of resistance? So every story had a focus.
And the connection with FEMEN?
Arman Riahi: Last summer we contacted them in Paris. We realized [that what they were doing] was on the border of nonviolence, but it’s definitely nonviolent. Because what they have is their boobs; this is not a weapon. They don’t even have a [protective] shell or clothes or whatever. So they are completely nonviolent, but they are aggressive. And this is irritating for people. So we thought, ok, we have to put that in.
What do you hope viewers will take with them when they leave the theater?
Arman Riahi: Energy to change things. Energy to just make this first step, to get away from the thoughts that only famous people or only people in power can change things.
Arash Riahi: We want them to leave the cinema with the feeling that it’s up to them, that it’s up to every single person to change things. And that there are tools and means and ways of doing this. And these can be anything. It can start with a pingpong ball or with bodies or whatever. The resistance has many faces. We want to inspire people to use nonviolence. It’s fun, and it’s the right way. And it doesn’t harm anybody.
After surrounding yourselves with all of this creative nonviolence, filming these movements for almost four years, in what ways do you think about nonviolence differently now compared with when you started?
Arman Riahi: Well, we didn’t start with the nonviolent idea, per se. It really started with Iran. We come from a pacifistic family; our parents brought us up to be pacifists. We decline the use of force. But nonviolence as an idea – an old idea, deeply rooted in all the major religions – this was a bit different and something which was new to us. So when we began with Iran, we didn’t know too much about nonviolence. We didn’t understand the idea that when people get hit, they shouldn’t hit back. These were ideas we didn’t formulate then. But as soon as we got into the work of Srdja Popovic and Erica Chenoweth and started to go into the movements, it was clear that all of them were committed to the nonviolent idea.
Arash Riahi: We learned over these three or four years what a serious, nonviolent fight really means and also the way that it has been empirically proven to work. So this was important. Now we believe even more in it. We were very surprised when we were at these theoretical talks what evidence they had.
The documentary is only one part of an original cross-media platform. Can you explain what you’re developing exactly?
Arash Riahi: The cross-media platform includes a video content website focusing on self-recorded material, outtakes from the film, deleted scenes, extra portraits we shot and so on. We have a lot of different material that is all about portraying activists, their methods, spreading tutorials. So it’s really a platform with tools. We want to give people tools in their hands. And of course we hope that people more and more will use the website and will post their own stuff.
We’re also working on a smartphone application that has the working title of Everyday Rebellion System Downfall. It has tips and tricks like how to build gas masks out of plastic bottles in case the police use tear gas. It also uses augmented reality and GPS to give people live information about certain places and movements. So if they go to Tahrir or if they go to Zuccotti Park, they can see what happened there at different points, what methods were used, how they built a self-sustaining environment in Zuccotti Park with energy bikes, for example. We want to expand the narrative into different forms of media; the borders are really disappearing. We want to speak fluently in the languages of all the movements. And we want to spread the methods and the stories of these activists into as many relevant forms as possible.
Was it difficult maintaining autonomy and independence while making and financing this project?
Arash Riahi: From the beginning, we didn’t want to be dependent on any government or group or NGO or whatever. We just didn’t want to open ourselves to critiques that we are financially dependent on this or that group. Of course, when you live in the US and there’s no classical [public] film funding situation, this is much more difficult. Because we are in Austria and there is a functioning film fund system, the film is financed by tax money [from Switzerland and France as well as from Austria].
It was a little difficult, of course. It took us two and a half years to finance the film. We are very independent, following our conscience and our own moral thinking. We give instructions for civil disobedience, which is sometimes not very legal. And for the platform we are still struggling – we need two or three people there who are constantly working on it – because no one wants to fund that kind of thing. This transmedia stuff is so new in a way that if you don’t have a revenue model or if you don’t have a business model – they all want to see a business model on the applications – that’s why we were always getting rejected because we don’t want to make business with this. They want us to have a platform that we can use for the next thing and to make the money back and so on. Because this is not the goal of this project. It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. You have to rethink this system of money. For example, we had the idea that if that app cannot be free, we can make it 2 euros or $2, and each person who buys one will finance one free app for someone who cannot afford it.
What’s next? Are you planning a sequel?
Arash Riahi: I would love to make a sequel. He’s not very convinced. …
Arman Riahi: Of course I would do it. I want to work on this more; I mean it’s a lifetime project. But doing a second part means, of course, applying again. We have to get money. We had difficulties just finishing this now, with the many countries we shot in and all the people and the year we spent editing the 1,500 hours of material we had. It’s not something we can decide right now. We have to let this baby get out into the world and find a distributor and so on.
Arash Riahi: I think if this goes well and it becomes a hit or whatever, then we have the tools in hand to do it. We have a lot of material, and people are starting struggles and fights in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Brazil. …
Arman Riahi: It will never stop, there will always be things you can film!
Arash Riahi: I had the best times of my life shooting this film. It was so great. I’m doing this now for 15-20 years and the feeling that you have when you are with these people inside the movements, inside the demonstrations and protests – it’s so great. I get goosebumps when I think of it.
Arman Riahi: It’s the feeling of community, it’s the feeling of belonging to something, aiming for something big that’s important. This is also what connects us to the Yes Men and Popovic and all these guys. You have the feeling that there is something you want to fight for to make the world better. It sounds maybe cheesy, but, you know [laughing] – that’s how we are.
Arash Riahi: There is one elderly woman from Spain in our movie. She was explaining one time – it’s not in the movie anymore – but she said that before this thing happened, you went on the street and sometimes you demonstrated and no one talked to you. Now, some guys that you don’t know come to you sometimes and ask you if you want water, if you need anything and so on. And before they go home, everyone hugs each other, and she doesn’t feel old anymore. She doesn’t feel alone anymore. She doesn’t feel useless. This is great. And there are so many people like her. So many lonesome people who are longing for something who would like to fight, who would like to be part of a bigger community. This is the beauty of nonviolent movements, that everyone can be part of it. You don’t have to be strong physically or young. Everyone can do something.