Film Review: A Whisper to a Roar

Julia Roig is the president of Partners for Democratic Change, an international organization that works through a global network of professionals to support local leaders and create partnerships that transform conflict, strengthen democratic institutions, and achieve sustainable development. Ms. Roig oversees the DC-based Partners team and provides technical and strategic leadership to the global network of twenty Partners affiliates that make up Partners for Democratic Change International (PDCI). 2

In a globalized world, when leaders in Asia make a declaration, it is almost immediately heard in the Americas. Likewise, social activism and ideas can spread rapidly across borders, as the Arab Spring recently demonstrated. While it is easy for ideas to spread, immense differences among cultures affect their implementation for social change.

The 2012 film A Whisper to a Roar, written and directed by Ben Moses and produced by Appleseed Entertainment, draws powerful parallels between five vastly disparate nations—Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe—yet skillfully refrains from overstretching the similarities, allowing the viewer to appreciate the context of each story. In each country, A Whisper to a Roar examines a recurrent theme regarding the power of people to work together for democratic change and the courage and commitment needed to break the cycle of power, impunity, and corruption within their governments. While each country’s leader held legitimacy at the beginning of his rule, the movie shows how the governance structure succumbed to a paradigm of violent oppression and corruption. Additionally, A Whisper to a Roar highlights how, through social networks and instant global communication, people are refusing to abide by a system that represses them. As the famous phrase from the 1976 film Network goes: They are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Footage from each of the five countries is presented alongside interviews with the people who were personally involved—from student leaders to heads of state—in the conflicts, allowing the audience to experience the angst firsthand. Historic videos of rallies in each of the countries and speeches made by the leaders and key figures at the time are shown through the reflections of the same individuals today. This juxtaposition of past and present allows the viewer to connect to each country’s struggle, though it also demonstrates the film’s bias as a piece of activism, meant to instill outrage that leads to support for democratic activists.

Peaceful protests steeped in outrage can unfortunately also lead to violence. Missing from this movie is, in the immortal words of Paul Harvey, the rest of the story—the “now what?” History has shown us that those invested in the status quo will do everything in their power to silence those challenging it. That is exactly what we see in each case study examined. In Venezuela, when Hugo Chavez felt threatened by individuals’ voting habits, he nationalized the media along with many other aspects of society and criminalized peaceful student protest. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe used the military against his own citizens to retain his power. Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted to consolidate his power, and when his colleague Anwar Ibrahim questioned the legality of his finances, Mahathir had him arrested. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak arrested anyone who opposed him. Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma allegedly had his political challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, poisoned in an attempt to remain in office. A Whisper to a Roar does a good job of documenting the extreme need for democratic transition in these countries but stops short of presenting the long hard road to democracy after the autocratic regime is ousted. When individuals rise up and speak out, they are met with violence, and in the rare case of success—as in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak—the country is forced into a power vacuum for which it is not prepared.

For this reason Partners for Democratic Change (Partners) works to arm democratic activists with democracy-building tools beyond protests. Building lasting peace and democratic institutions requires that all people have a say in decisions that affect their lives, including those who may not agree with one’s visions. Structures and processes for governance beyond regime change are critical. Our work throughout the world helps to prevent such violent backlash from occurring because citizens are trained to strategically intervene in the system and resolve their issues without resorting to force. For example, in Yemen, Partners is holding citizen dialogues on the constitution-writing process to help them actively shape their government. We work directly with local civil society organizations, connecting activists throughout the Middle East so they can provide each other with support and advice on peaceful change. In Latin America, we have galvanized civil society to be more active in converting the Inter-American Democratic Charter into a relevant advocacy tool for democracy in the region. In West Africa, we are training civic leaders in participatory governance mechanisms and transparency. Through methods like these, in partnerships with civil society, business, and governments, Partners empowers voices for transparency, participation, and the rule of law to prevent a recurrence of the transitional violence that the film highlights.

Most of the stories presented in A Whisper to a Roar are not over yet.

A Whisper to a Roar educates its audience about acts of democratic courage in five countries, serving as forces for change in violent and destructive contexts. Most of the stories presented in A Whisper to a Roar are not over yet, however. Partners believes that we should continue to support local leaders beyond their protest movements, helping them to build coalitions and collaboratively advocate for an inclusive society that together can build and rebuild democratic institutions. A Whisper to a Roar calls for all to continue helping democratic transitions in Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, so their stories can end with the establishment of vibrant and peaceful democracies.

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