In any given year, many Hot Docs entries are reserved for films about people fighting the good fight against a sometimes apathetic, and sometimes cruel system that are guilty of oppression in one way, shape or form. In some respects, Everyday Rebellion is like a highlight reel of every major protest over the last few years, including all the hits like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the Ukraine. The “in” for this movie is the idea that inventive and grassroots non-violent protest can change the world for the better, and is more beneficial than the more violent, bloodshed variety of change. There’s definitely something to that, but the message is murky because quite obviously, the small actions by the people profiled here aren’t moving the needle very much.
The focus of the film is truly on the “everyday people,” although usual instigators like Reverend Billy of the Church of No-Shopping and Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno do get a chance to have their say. What’s palpable about the film’s subjects in many cases is the desperation. They are not, in most respects, your typical anarchist types. Take someone like Juan Carlos in Spain, for example. He was a computer engineer that lost his job in the crash, and is now facing the prospect of losing his apartment and being evicted by the bank. In Syria, an architect named Ahmed is one of several million refugees who have been forced to flee to Jordan because violence ravages his homeland.
What can one person do in the face of these dilemmas? Situations where people are dying in the face of such desperation, and yes, people are dying in Madrid, leaping from the windows of their apartments as opposed to facing the uncertainty and humiliation of being evicted. Can you do anything in the face of such greed and genocide? In Juan Carlos’ neighborhood, tenants band together to hunker down and make the police remove them by force. Juan Carlos goes further by painting anti-bank slogans on the walls of his flat. In Syria before fleeing, Ahmed made his feeling about the regime of Bashir al-Assad clear by dying the fountains of Damascus red, and writing anti-Assad messages on ping-pong balls and bouncing them down a hill to one of his palaces.
But what good does it do? We’re talking about paint and balls against people with money, power, influence, and most importantly, the protection of and enforcement by, people with guns. Erica Chenoworth, an expert in protest and direct action, discusses how non-violence has been proven more effective in the creating change than violence, and although that sounds right, the documentary spends a lot of time hovering around the Occupy movement, which got a lot of attention almost three years ago, but could arguably be said to have not accomplished much. Banks are still making incredible profits, and no one’s gone to jail for creating the conditions of the economic collapse in 2008, no matter how many anniversaries the Occupiers commemorate.
So, what’s the lesson? According to the experts, you have to start small and be prepared to keep the flames of protest going for the long haul. Media seems to suggest that these movements happen overnight, but something like the revolt in Egypt in 2011 was cooking for 10 years before it got to a tipping point. Understandably, filmmaker Arash T. Riahi is trying to create a positive, and affirming story where David wounds – if not beats – Goliath, but I think he undersells the uphill aspect of the protest, and the sheer power that the oppressors bring to bear on the oppressed. Ahmed and friends are certainly inventive, but have their pranks done anything to rid Syria of Bashir al-Assad?
One of the interesting stories in Everyday Rebellion is that of Inna, a Ukrainian activist in her early 20s who was forced to flee from Kiev after she took a chainsaw to a wood cross while topless. She’s a brazen character who continues to bear her birthday suit in protest as she seeks political asylum in Paris, and encourages other women to get involved and get active. She might have lost her home after a midnight visit from the secret police sent a powerful message, but that hasn’t seemed to dull her spirit. Perhaps the point is inspiration. Perhaps the point is that you can persevere even in the face of threats to health and home. And maybe the point is that we have to do more, and that the whispers of millions of people can sometimes add up to one booming voice.
Everyday Rebellion offers mixed messages about the subtle nature of modern protest, but the characters trying to make the case are compelling enough to wish them well in their respective missions.