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The Activist, the Hero and the Warrior: A Whisper to a Roar

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As President Obama and Governor Romney take the stage for the final debate, they'll cover foreign policy. David E. Sanger explored the candidates' positions and differences for the New York Times Caucus blog this weekend. He offers a field guide to the debate that includes possible negotiations with Iran, issues arising from the Benghazi attack, China, Afghanistan and the Taliban. Sanger asks how each candidate views the "the future of American power in the world."

After seeing the film A Whisper to a Roar this weekend and talking with the three principals involved in making this documentary, my main question has changed slightly -- moving away from America's role and instead asking, "What is the role of democracy in the world today?"

Film has an incredible power to move us. In the case of the new documentary A Whisper to a Roar, democracy and the fight for freedom are not only moving, but also deeply personal, thought-provoking and inspiring.

A Whisper to a Roar focuses on the struggle for democracy as it plays out in five very different countries -- Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. In each of these countries, the fight for democracy has been, and remains, intense. The film takes us through very personal and risk-filled stories to introduce to us what Prince Moulay Hicham describes as the heroism of the ordinary citizen. We meet and follow workers, journalists, students and government officials who take to the streets to protest against oppression, face possible harsh repercussions for speaking out and still push through the brick wall of often fraudulent bureaucracy to cast their vote.

In speaking with the three principal collaborators on the film, I had the chance to hear how making AWTAR affected each of them personally, the vision this film embraces and what they hope this story will mean to other people across the world. Director/writer/producer Ben Moses (Good Morning Vietnam) teamed up with Stanford professor Larry Diamond, whose book, The Spirit of Democracy, inspired the film. Prince Moulay Hicham of Morocco was the film's benefactor, collaborated on the production and conducted interviews with heads of state.

The story A Whisper To A Roar tells is far from easy. The material is complex and timely, and the uncertainty, violence and constantly shifting political situations make the filmmaker's task a daunting one. Moses handles the difficult material adroitly and though parts of the film are difficult to watch due to violence, what shines through is a core belief that people will go to great lengths to make their voices heard.

Larry Diamond describes the film in this way:

I think the core idea is that democracy has become a universal value. People around the world, even in tough places like Zimbabwe... there's an overwhelming, popular desire for democracy, and that it is a struggle. People have been taking enormous risks for this intangible thing and it isn't only economic development they want. They want freedom and self-determination as well. The right of people to speak out, to challenge, to criticize their rulers, to freely associate, to contest for office, to hold leaders accountable -- these are not just rights that are in the abstract. And they're not just rights that people in developed countries care about. They're rights that people from vastly different cultural and developmentally historical circumstances are mobilizing for and are passionate about. So that was the core of it. The fact that there is a universal quality to it now... And that it's not an easy thing to bring about and sustain.


To introduce the overarching themes and concept of how power can corrupt, the film opens with an animated sequence, a Chinese parable with an original twist. This is an unexpected touch in a serious documentary. It's the story of a dragon, his armor, a warrior and populist heroism to frame the real-life drama we are about to experience. In talking with the filmmakers, they all discussed the desire for the film to show the universal nature of democracy that's been building around the world.

At a certain point, the cynic in me did make an appearance. How is it that these men who have devoted so many years to studying, writing, discussing and promoting democracy can still talk about it and use words like freedom, dignity, solidarity, awe, heroism with such conviction? How can they be so sure democracy is the right path and truly believe in the power of people to make a stand and make change?

Prince Moulay Hicham talked about how the film affected him.

All of my life I could have walked out cynically on everything. And have a place in the sun. But like all those people, in my own way I cannot claim to be as heroic as them. I can claim to be persistent, as bullish as them, but I'm certainly not as heroic as them and I'm humbled by everything I saw in that movie. What I feel is emboldening in the fact that you could have transposed each of these countries one on top of the other one and it's the same thing. You know, dragons come in very different forms and the warriors that come to face them have many faces. That's the Chinese parable that's in the movie, and that's so true.


And so the skeptic in me quiets down at least for the moment. I can't help but think about our impending presidential elections, the struggle we face in getting voters to the polls and our relative comfort compared to many parts of the world. Certain speeches I heard at the Democratic Convention and seeing this film made me realize: Yes, our system is flawed. No, I'm not always sure whom to believe. But I still want to be part of this. I want to be part of this messy, frustrating system and be active in my community.

Here's Ben Moses with his comments on why democracy and being an active citizen are important:

Having a voice. That's what I learned from this film. If people don't have a voice, they will do something to get one. And they may die to try to get it, but they will try.

I never knew how important that was. I pretty much avoided being anything more than a spectator for years because of working for the networks and doing documentaries. If we don't, as a majority of people, at least get involved in everything that goes on in governing ourselves -- democracy, as Andrey Shevchenko [from the film] said, you can lose it. Everybody's got to stay involved. Everybody's got to compromise. That's one of the takeaways I have from this film too.


There are so many stories coming out daily about global conflict and struggles that it can seem overwhelming and impossible to follow them. I asked Larry Diamond, "How do the struggles in these other countries apply to me? How do I find my way in?"

It's hard to just open a newspaper and read an account about [places in] the world where people are engaged in an extremely, impassioned, existential and difficult struggle -- it's hard to read about and really identify with that. If you get to know an individual or a few individuals, then their national drama... becomes more meaningful. It becomes something that's more readily understandable because it's personal and... an important contribution of this film is getting people involved with and acutely aware of the personal stories of people who are taking great risks, who are struggling for democracy. And once it becomes personal, it becomes much more manageable, much more intelligible, much more vivid, much more real, much more concrete. That's how I think you begin to identify with this large scale, wide spread, universal, grand struggle for political transformation and liberation.


You can find more of the conversation with Ben Moses, Larry Diamond and Prince Moulay Hicham at www.betweenpages.org. We cover how Facebook, Twitter and cell phones have become tools for democracy, human nature and what to look for in these developing democracies.

A Whisper to a Roar opened in Los Angeles on Friday, October 19th. Visit the website to find more screenings and ways to get involved.