After a turbulent political year in the Middle East and Northern Africa, several documentaries about what has been dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’ have emerged. The Reluctant Revolutionary, directed and filmed by Sean McAllister, gives us a personal eye-witness account of the revolution in Yemen, where civilians protesting the 33-year long dictatorship of president Ali Abdullah Saleh were met with violence and bloodshed.
Sean McAllister is a well-known British documentary maker, having frequently worked with both the BBC and Channel 4. He has won awards for his work including the Sundance Jury Prize for his 2005 documentary ‘The Liberace of Baghdad’. First viewed in March as part of BBC 4’s Storyville, The Reluctant Revolutionary has since been screened at several film festivals including the Sheffield Doc Fest and will have its US premiere on the 2nd of August at The Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan.
The film features the personal journey of both McAllister as well as his main- character Kais; his Yemeni tour guide. The filmmaker came to Yemen during the Arab Spring as he sensed that the revolutionist spirit would visit there next and saw an opportunity to capture history. While he is touring the country with Kais, unrest springs up in the capitol of Sana’a. McAllister and Kais return to the capitol and together witness and capture the revolution first handedly.
Kais is a 35 year old father of two, with a third on the way, who is desperately trying to make a living in the dwindling tourist industry of Yemen. His excellent grasp of the English language and his dark sense of humour contribute an intimacy to this film which entices and involves. What is most unique about this story is the way in which an internal revolution of believes takes place within Kais, paralleling the Yemeni revolution. At first opposed to the revolution, as he blames it for his dwindling business, he only visits the camp of the protesters on ‘Change Square’ because he is compelled to as McAllister’s tour guide. As governmental violence against the peaceful protesters increases we see how Kais’ support is slowly swayed towards the revolution until by the end of the film his support is unwavering and he has joined the protesters. A transition of this scope in a character is rare and is what gives the film its strength and makes it distinctive.
McAllister is very present in his own film, in no way shielded by his camera as we see how he finds himself in increasingly dangerous situations, where he genuinely does not know what will happen next. As other journalists are deported from Yemen by the government to stop international coverage of their increasing use of violence, McAllister somehow manages to undermine them by penetrating the front line of protest. McAllister and Kais are eyewitnesses to this violence as it culminates on March the 18th, in what is later to be called the ‘Friday of Dignity Massacre’, where 52 protesters are murdered and countless injured by security forces. McAllister is unflinching in his honest portrayal as he finds himself at the centre of bloody turmoil at the makeshift hospital on this day. Perhaps one of the most moving and memorable shots is captured here as a severely wounded and perhaps dying man still has his hand forming the peace sign.
Though there was vast coverage from inside this hospital, what could be said to be missing from the footage is the visual evidence of the government’s security forces shooting the protesters. We see countless people being carried past on stretchers, we hear shots in the background and are told
eyewitness accounts, but we aren’t shown. To get this footage would have put both McAllister and Kais in danger of their lives, and its omission is therefore understandable. In an attempt to make up for this McAllister inserts some mobile phone footage taken closer to the scene of the shootings, this still however doesn’t feature the shooters. As tensions between the president’s supporters and anti-president camp are mentioned earlier in the film, this raises some questions as to the identity of the shooters. If perhaps more mobile phone footage would have been included this could have indisputably cemented the origin of the shooters and the undeniable guilt of the government, thereby erasing the question marks the film now seems to leave.
Another element that is missing from the narrative is sufficient background information on the Yemini president Saleh. The only thing mentioned in the voice-over by McAllister is that the president united the North and South of Yemen by paying the disputing tribal warlords to stop fighting. Of course any president that holds on to power for 33 years, without setting up general elections is considered to be at best undemocratic, but an audience may feel that it needs more information. Why did the protesters hate him so much? Why did other civilians claim to love and support him? The film seems to almost assume that we know the back story to the history of Yemen, but let’s be honest; most of us don’t. When Kais is shown to have changed his mind about the president, McAllister questions him as to why he supported the president in the first place. Kais only reply is to state that he ‘was in a coma, and has now woken up’ and hints at the fact that the president’s actions are somehow responsible for his business failures. This seems to be the perfect opportunity to gain insight into the effect the president has had on Yemen, and the part that he has played, though this chance is sadly passed by. Although McAllister softly prompts Kais for further explanation, he does not give any, which leaves the viewer with a sense of frustration about unanswered questions and slightly disgruntled at McAllister for not pursuing this further.
Another slightly distracting element of the film is the ever-shaky camera work. Of course with this type of gritty, in-the-middle–of-the-violence, documentary one expects a certain unsteadiness to the handheld camera movement. But even in quiet moments and interviews, McAllister seems to be constantly moving, zooming and not paying much attention to framing, which is extremely distracting thereby detracting from the story. Even though the footage is spectacular in its content, the technique has much to be desired.
Even with its shortcomings The Reluctant Revolutionary is a very important and moving documentation of the Arab Spring. The extreme bravery not only shown by McAllister and Kais, but by every Yemini protesters is extremely inspirational and admirable. The film is an ode to investigative journalism and the inspirational will-power of the Yemini people who don’t take no for an answer.
For our Amercian readers, The Reluctant Revolutionary will have its U.S. première at the Traverse City Film Festival. McAllister will be there for a Q&A after. The Traverse City Film Festival was founded by film maker Michael Moore and will screen the film in the City Opera House on Thursday 2 August 6:00pm and in the Milliken Auditorium on Sunday 5 August 6:00pm.