Film Review: A Whisper To A Roar

Inspired by Larry Diamond's book <i>The Spirit of Democracy</i>, Ben Moses' documentary argues that even thwarted and deeply flawed elections are empowering because they engage ordinary citizens in the political process and challenge the self-defeating

Clearly designed as a call to action—specifically a call to exercise the right and responsibility to vote—A Whisper To A Roar uses original interviews and archival footage to document and draw parallels between pivotal moments in the recent history of Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Malaysia and Egypt, countries with little in common beyond long, sorry histories of repressive governance.

In Ukraine, the focus is Viktor Yushchenko's near-fatal 2004 presidential campaign; pitted against government-supported candidate Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko abruptly vanished from public view amid rumors of mysterious illness, only to reappear a shadow of his former self, scarred by deliberate dioxin poisoning. His resurrection galvanized voters and sparked the so-called "Orange Revolution,” a spontaneous pushback against politics as usual.

Muslim politician Anwar Ibrahim, onetime protégé and subsequent vocal critic of longtime Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, is subjected to a devastating smear campaign in 2000 designed to destroy his political ambitions by accusing him of sodomy. Eventually vindicated and elected to Parliament in 2008, Anwar steadfastly maintains that a free press and an informed populace are the keys to his future.

Politically active students use social media like Twitter and Facebook to undermine Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's preemptive collectivization of private industries, from the national electrical service to mom-and-pop stores, and organize the 2010 voto joven movement, which inspired young voters to make their voices heard at the polls.

After coming to power on an anti-white-minority-rule platform, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's promised color-blind inclusiveness but implemented race-based land-redistribution policies that turned "the bread basket [of Africa] into a basket case" before losing control of Parliament in 2008 through the efforts of Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

And in Egypt, the simmering frustration of factory workers in a single city explodes into a 2008 strike that unites students, citizen journalists and political dissidents against authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak and sparks the April 6 Movement, widely considered to have paved the way for 2010's Arab Spring, a wave of civil resistance that helped unseat entrenched governments from Tunisia to Yemen.

Moses' film is deeply flawed, in large part because his material is fundamentally too complex for a 96-minute documentary, but also admirably ideologically aware in its focus on pro-democracy movements lacking close ties to the U.S. or other foreign powers. But while the big picture is unwieldy (and bracketed by a redundant animated fable about a warrior and a dragon), the movie shines when it spotlights individuals who stepped up to the plate when common sense favored backing down, from murdered Ukrainian television journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who challenged politicians to provide real answers to tough, unpopular questions, to Esraa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian office worker who simultaneously embraced the modesty her Muslin faith demanded and challenged her government's entrenched censorship laws.