EVERYDAY REBELLION, a documentary and cross-media project on non-violence protest methods and modern forms of civil disobedience, could have been easily called “Creative Rebellion”. Not only are the ideas and strategies for “civil unrest” very different and much more imaginative than what you’d expect, as well as being backed up by hard science, but the style of the documentary is so surprisingly cinematic, I often had the impression I was watching a fiction film. Which made it all the more powerful and moving for it.
The Iranian-born Austrian filmmakers ARASH & ARMAN RIAHI started this ambitious project in 2009 and travelled the world over to document various forms of social protest and find out what, if anything, they had in common. The film imaginatively takes us to Madrid where we spend time with the Indignados; with the Green revolutionaries in Tehran; with members of FEMEN in Kiev, Paris and Stockholm; with Occupy Wall Street in New York; and with Syrian activists devoted to nonviolent resistance against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The result: a very sensitive, intimate and astute documentary painting so many memorable portraits of the often anonymous “protagonists” involved in the myriad forms of everyday rebellions taking place everywhere in the world.
This interview with ARMAN RIAHI was taken on November 10, 2013, at the Danish Cinemateket, Copenhagen, a few days ahead of the film’s world premiere at CPH:DOX where it also won the Audience Award.
(This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length)
Dana: When and where did Everyday Rebellion start?
Arman:It started in 2009, after the presidential and political elections in Iran, when the Green movement took place. We were watching the videos of protesters who recorded human rights violations. As a refugee family living in Austria in exile, we were very touched by this and we suggested to make a film about this uprising. So when we started developing the project it was only about Iran. Then history happened: there was the Arab spring and then 15-M, the Spanish Indignados movement, then Occupy Wall Street, so we constantly changed the focus and we constantly developed and found new things that are interesting and important. And at some point we realised the focus should be on non-violence protests because this is a very useful tool and a very important, true and wise idea about how to confront dictatorships and oppressive powers, economic systems which oppress you and so on. It’s really about non-violent rebellion and what it can do for ordinary citizens…
Dana: Was it you who went to Iran to film and develop this project?
Arman: No, in Iran somebody filmed secretly for us. In Iran part of the story is some kind of video diary of an Iranian girl, she can be everybody, she stays anonymous and she’s telling her side of the situation in Iran now.
Dana: So where did you first set up shop and started filming?
Arman:We started with Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of the Serbian resistance movement that overthrew Milošević in the 90s .He is now a non-violent consultant and he is a great guy, a great strategist. He has been invited by non-violence movements to help them develop their ideas, because you cannot really export a movement, each non-violent movement has to be really authentic from the country itself. So we started with him and he was the tip of the iceberg, then we started talking to other activists and veterans, which is how the project spread. Then we came here, to Copenhagen, to take part in a non-violent activist conference.
Dana: Was this in 2011?
Arman:Yes, 2 years ago. Then we went to film in Egypt with the activists we got to meet here at the conference in Copenhagen, then we went to film in Madrid, we went there three times with the 15-M movement.
Dana: Did you go to Ukraine as well, you mentioned Femen.
Arman: Yes, Femen is a big part of the film.
Dana: Have you met Kitty Green, have you seen Ukraine is Not a Brothel?
Arman:Yes I saw the film, it’s not really my type of thing to be honest…
Arman:For me it’s a little bit too speculative, it’s very much focused on one point, the film is very much only focusing on this guy in the background who has something to do with the organisation but he’s not the only founder, there is another founder of Femen and nobody talks about her. And because the story about this guy was the most sensational factor, what I find is that Kitty Green, whom I respect for her work, only focused on this, but there are a lot of other things that you can talk about when you talk about Femen, for example the background of these girls and the situation in Ukraine. But this is talked about for five minutes at the beginning of the film and then it’s over.
Dana: I think she chose to focus more on the contradictions within this organisation and tried to bring those to light…
Arman:Yes, which is also interesting, but that was not the only thing. We have spent a lot of time with Inna Shevchenko…
Dana: At the same time that Kitty Green was making her film there?
Arman:No, actually our film starts where Kitty Green’s film stops. The film starts when Inna Shevchenko leaves Ukraine to go to Paris and starts Femen International in Paris. And she won’t go back now because the Secret Services are after her, so our film really starts when she leaves Ukraine and builds up Femen International in France. Now there are a lot of Femen franchises set up all over the world.
Dana: So what did you focus on in this part of the film?And how many parts are there to the film? It sounds like a huge project.How long is the film?
Arman:Yes it’s a huge project. The film is 110 minutes. We have Femen, the 15-M movement in Madrid, Occupy Wall Street, Egypt a little bit, Copenhagen a little bit, Iran, the Syrian non-violent movement. It’s more than 7-8 countries, it’s Ukraine, France, Aman, the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, then there’s New York, Madrid, Copenhagen, it’s a really big project.
Dana: And how do the different parts connect and resonate with each other?I suppose the common theme is the non-violent type of protests.
Arman:Yes. On paper you would think: what do all these movements have to do with each other?What has Occupy have to do with the Syrian non-violent movement?or the famous fight for women’s rights or against the church?
Dana: Well, they are all protests against something…
Arman:Yes and they have a lot to do with each other because they are all about what ordinary citizens can do against injustice. Some of the activists don’t even fight for their own rights, they come from good backgrounds, they could do a good job and live happily. But what motivates them is the injustice that’s going on in the world. They want to change something and it is not a hippy dream that you can change a lot with non-violent protests, it’s scientifically proven and this is one of the points of the film, this is why we came to the conference in Copenhagen, it is scientifically proven that non-violent resistance is much more effective.
Dana: Is this the conclusion of the film?
Arman:Yes, and the film has other conclusions. You learn a lot I think.
Dana: Was your life ever in danger when you were filming all these protests?I’m thinking more of Syria, Egypt. Or do you have any insider tales, anecdotes you could share?
Arman:There were some moments which were a little bit close calls. Funnily, the most close call was actually in New York, the police there was really brutal and at some point, you can see it in the movie a little bit, on the day of action, it was the 17th of September 2012, which was the 1st year anniversary of the movement. The Occupy movement took over the financial district of NYC with its non-violent protests, like sit-ins in bank lobbies, walks on the intersection, on the intercity highway in NYC. So the police was at some point driving with the motorcycles, driving towards us and trying to kick us, to run us over, to get us off the street. Or in Aman, at some point one of the Syrian protesters tried to do a protest method which I don’t want to tell you about and spoil your surprise because it is very creative. People say about Jordan that 3/4 of the Jordanian population works for the Secret Service!Which is a funny thing because right before he wanted to do the action, we were there with 2 or 3 cameras and our location manager said “maybe this is not so good to do this now”, and I said “why?this is the last day and we have to do it, it’s great”, “oh yeah, because you know in Jordan half of the population or more works for the Secret Service” and I said “Okay, thanks for telling us only now!” But compared to the life of the “protagonists”, our lives were never really in danger. Now when the film comes out, I’m sure some governments won’t like it very much, Iran will not like it very much but it’s okay, that’s why we do it. The important thing is the political statement, civil disobedience is very important for each nation.
Dana: How was this project funded?
Arman:The film is produced by Golden Girls, which is an Austrian-Viennese production company where my brother is one of the 2 or 3 partners. The film was financed in a very classical way, by the Austrian Film Funding body, by the state. But the films also has German TV funds, […] actually the funding is not very unconventional.
Dana: And this is not your first film, is it?
Arman:No, I made my first film two years ago, it was called Dark Head, about young teenagers in Austria, young adults, rappers, who have an immigrant background and are using hip-hop as their tool to act and to have something to do and get off the street. So this film was premiered at Sarajevo as Opening Film two years ago. But this one is our first film together, that we directed together. My brother has made three documentaries already and a feature film also.
Dana: So documentary is your thing, you want to continue making documentaries.
Arman:Actually I’m writing two or three fiction films now. So next year I want to start the production for my first fiction film.
Dana: Is it about social issues?
Dana: We have a theme here, a common thread here running through all your films.
Arman:Some people tell me that as a young director, I’m 32, people tell me “choose a style, you have to have a style”. Because Austria is very much a film country, we have Michel Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, the legends, so they say “Ulrich Seidl has this style, his films are like this”.
Dana: They became almost like a “genre”.
Arman:Yes. And it’s great, I respect them very much, I think they are amazing filmmakers but…
Dana: You don’t want to be limited to just one style…
Arman:[…] When you see the film, you’ll see that it has a style, it’s well-crafted and we are filmmakers, we’re not activists. But with this film we became activists somehow […].
Dana: Did you go to film school by the way?
Arman:No, I never went to film school, I refused to apply, I knew I wanted to make films but I didn’t want anybody to tell me how to do it or if I can do it. But apply? Every year they accept only 5 to 10 people in the Austrian University for Film, where Haneke is a teacher for example, in the directing class. And I was very interested in design and art direction and graphic design. So I went to the University for Applied Sciences and in my internship I did graphic design in London, I lived in London for a year and did my internship there. Which is something that helps me design the posters for the films. So I thought I should do design, it’s another skill and you can earn money with it also. And forget about learning film because you’ll do it anyway!
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