Documentary Film Review: Bahrain - Shouting in the Dark
As revolution swept over Egypt beginning in January of this year, foreign news networks jostled over each other in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Camera equipment tangling in the feet of the crowds, well known anchors yelled their reports above the noise of demonstrators. It was the place to be. Live coverage of the protestors, the police and the speeches beamed over the airwaves of CNN, ABC, the BBC and other networks from around the world. The unsatisfactory response of Mubarak’s government was laid bare for the world to see, inescapable from the cameras, and the scrutiny of their audiences in living rooms from Moscow to Montreal.
In homes far away from the streets of Cairo, we were glued to our television sets, to the unforgettable images of the throngs of people who had flooded the square, refusing to back down until they achieved the overthrow of a regime that had long held democracy at bay and made freedom an abstraction. Soon, we would need to divide our attention back to the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, and forward to the unfolding civil war in Libya.
There was little time left for the beginnings of other revolutions, in Yemen, or Syria. And in Bahrain, there was barely a foreign camera crew to be seen in Manama, the capital of the gulf island kingdom, when Bahrainis rose up en masse and peacefully against the Al Khalifa royals, Sunni Muslims who have ruled the majority Shia since the 19th century, allowing democratic institutions to exist in name only.
Like in Egypt a symbolic public space, the Pearl Roundabout, was seized by the people and there was no shortage of iconic scenes or of the kind of acts of bravery and determination that make the stuff of Hollywood movies. There was the young poetess, Ayat al-Qurmezi, who was arrested and tortured into giving a broadcasted confession on state television after she publicly read a poem critical of the government. There were ordinary people who had left behind their homes and jobs to spend their days and nights camped out in the roundabout, ready to stay until they achieved the change they demanded. There were the brave men who asked the women to leave the square as the Saudi military approached with their tanks and guns, and the brave women who refused to go. There were the nurses and doctors of the country’s only public hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, who worked round the clock to treat the injured, the beaten, the shot, and who spoke out publicly against the regime—an act that would later cost many of them dearly.
These stories are powerfully told in Al Jazeera English’s documentary, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, through striking footage and raw moments of the protest captured on camera as they happened: the impassioned screams of protestors, the forced confessions of torture victims, families recovering the ravaged bodies of relatives who were beaten to death by police. The hour-long program narrates the key events of the attempt at a Bahraini revolution from the first uprisings to the monarchy’s brutal crackdown. Its commentary is not neutral but clearly on the side of the people, and damning of the failure of the United States to speak out and of the absence of foreign media to document the atrocities brazenly carried out by the government.
In the absence of the cameras, with the West’s attention tied up elsewhere, peaceful Bahraini protestors were gunned down in their streets and in their homes. Dissidents were detained at police checkpoints, their bodies later dumped onto the road, marked with unmistakable evidence of torture. Intelligence and police agents took over a wing of the public hospital where injured protestors cut off from medical attention and tortured for information or merely for punishment. In one scene, a nurse is seen dragged out of the hospital and taken behind a wall in the yard of the hospital where she is kicked and beaten by uniformed police in riot gear.
Al Jazeera sought to capture the horrors that others were not, but the film is also rife with moments of the inspiring courage of ordinary people to political opposition leaders to health care professionals, who audaciously maintained their dignity as violence and repression descended everywhere. One protestor in the square declares, “With our souls, with our blood, we would sacrifice anything for you Bahrain.” There is the powerful imagery of Bahrainis pouring into the streets, so numerous the pavement is invisible, euphoric faces lit up by the city lights of Manama at night. It was an outpouring of expression long pent up, long awaited relief from a regime that has smothered its citizens for too long. “It was a place people came just to breathe the freedom there,” one man explains in an interview.
That small enclave where freedom could be breathed was categorically annihilated by Bahraini and Saudi Arabian forces in March 2011, with few outside witnesses to alert the world.
As the thirst for freedom and democracy spreads in the Middle East, and so many revolutions need us, how can we pick and choose who deserves our support and attention, and who earns our unequivocal condemnation? The sad truth is that we should have never waited for the spark of street protests to galvanize our solidarity. Bahrainis, Syrians, Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians and Yemenis have been waiting much longer than this. They were waiting in 1982 when the Syrian government massacred up to 40,000 of its own citizens in the city of Hama. They were waiting in Yemen in 2006 when elections were marred by fraud, censorship and violence. They were waiting over the last 40 years as Muammar Gaddafi spied on, repressed and executed Libyans without relent.
The people far from us who yearn for democracy and freedom have needed us much longer than this, and we’ve done a poor job of listening and of responding. Their demands are hardly extraordinary, as one protestor remarks in Shouting in the Dark: “We are asking for our minimum basic rights in this country, as a human being.”
Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark can be viewed here.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.