Arash und Arman T. Riahi  about their documentary EVERYDAY REBELLION


The Riahi Brothers on their cross media documentary project that was recently acclaimed by the CPH:DOX audience.

What awakened your consciousness of the phenomenon of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance?
Arash T. Riahi: We became conscious of the tactics of non-violent resistance after noticing that movements like the Arab Spring, 15M in Spain and America’s Occupy were structured in quite similar ways: On the whole they’re non-violent and have an extremely horizontal hierarchy without a leader. It was interesting to suddenly recognize a pattern. In the beginning we tried to answer the question of what these movements have in common, to what extent they’re influencing and inspiring each other. We ended up actually finding these connections.

Arman T. Riahi: Because we belong to the same family, which suffered from political persecution, the ideal of political resistance was very familiar. Our parents instilled in us the conviction that you have to shun violence, and violence can’t be answered with violence.

The movements you just mentioned are relatively new. And now you’ve completed a film on the subject. It would seem that you reacted to events in an extremely spontaneous way. How did you approach the subject filmically?
Arash T. Riahi: We first had the idea in 2009 because of the Green Movement, the protest movement in Iran. At the time there wasn’t any talk of the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. When history got ahead of us, we decided to keep the film’s concept open. And we started looking for a contemporary dramatic structure in light of the subject’s unpredictable nature. We also had a few setbacks, though it was an extremely organic process and we witnessed it all up close. We participated in demonstrations, stormed bank lobbies with the activists, were arrested several times, and made our audio and video files available to them. We became members of these movements, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to get so close to the individual activists. When you say you want to change the world without violence, people often don’t take you seriously. But it’s not a hippie fantasy, there’s empirical evidence for it: Some really big changes—I’m thinking of South Africa, Gandhi, the collapse of the Soviet Union—happened without violence. Seeing that it works was extremely motivating for us. So the film increasingly became an homage to the creative tactics of non-violent resistance, because they work, are ethically sound, and make the world a better place.

Arman T. Riahi: For me, the moral issue remained decisive. In my opinion you should never lose sight of the utopia of a violence-free world. The fact that this is met with skepticism and possibly even laughed at is something you have to live with. With time we gradually began to understand some things, such as what it means to risk your freedom, your time, your safety and that of your friends and relatives every day as an activist fighting for a better world.

EVERYDAY REBELLION is both a documentary and a cross-media project. What formal approach did you adopt for it, in contrast to a “classic” documentary?
Arman T. Riahi: EVERYDAY REBELLION egan as more than a documentary. It was kicked off by protests, most importantly in Iran in 2009 after the rigged presidential election. At the time a large number of cell-phone videos could be found on the Internet, and they revealed this movement’s language and aesthetic. We collected a lot of material from the Web and realized that regardless of how important and dynamic documentaries can be, compared with the level of dynamism on the Internet, where you can virtually witness revolutions in realtime, they’re rather static. For that reason our idea from the very beginning was to develop a cross-media project, which meant pairing the documentary with an Internet platform that would focus on video content. At present we’re developing a smartphone app, and we want to tell people about non-violent, creative activism on a variety of levels.

Arash T. Riahi: One of our co-producers is ARTE, which also has an extremely active online presence. There’s the platform ARTE Creative, with which we’ve begun working by producing 20 short videos with tips on non-violent resistance, and they’re available on the platform.

Thus film’s most fascinating aspect is the committed people with an incredible devotion, conviction and willingness to fight. Extremely fascinating personalities. What do they have in common? What drives them to engage in such radical protests, to almost sacrifice themselves?
Arman T. Riahi: What they have in common is a sense of injustice and an awareness that these injustices are happening in their country, in their environment, in their culture, which they’re unable to ignore. In terms of character they’re all driven by a will and a desire to change something rather than just watching passively. We basically met them through a contact or two, and the rest was a chain reaction. In New York we didn’t do anything more than go into Zucotti Park and start shooting. The people there wanted us to document their struggle. We were in New York twice, and by the second time we were at the heart of the movement.

Arash T. Riahi: What activists have in common is that, regardless of their age, a fire burns within them, one that removes their fear of resisting creatively. That might mean doing something absurd when surrounded by 50 armed police officers. And when they laugh and aren’t afraid anymore, they might not shoot. The fear never disappears completely, but it can be minimized through preparation, tactics, and even anger.

The film clearly reveals an interesting generational aspect: The young Egyptian quits his job and says, “I’m dedicating myself to the resistance because my father didn’t do enough.” The scenes in Spain suggest that the parents’ generation is the one that’s stirring up the young people. Did you see this often?
Arash T. Riahi: You can’t generalize and claim that in the Western world it’s the older generation that’s rising up as opposed to the younger one in Muslim countries. It’s a movement that includes all generations. Young people can’t do everything on their own, and the older generation’s experience is needed. In the Arab world, which is patriarchal, the men are doing fine, and they’ve arranged things nicely for themselves in a system run by men. In Iran and other Muslim countries that’s a reason for women to go into the streets. The motivation for young people is that they don’t have a future. In Spain the older generation that lived through a dictatorship under Franco is aware of what they achieved after it fell and what’s at stake now.

Arman T. Riahi: In Occupy’s case it’s a mixture of generations, but the ones going into the streets belong to an educated class, a middle class that’s educated well enough that they can see what’s wrong and have enough time to deal with it. In my opinion the older generation in Iran has lost its courage, too much has to be changed. They lived through a revolution 30 years ago, weren’t free before it, and have been living under even worse repression since the Islamic Revolution. Many members of the older generation didn’t even bother to go into the streets in 2009, because they’re discouraged. Seventy-five percent of Iran’s population is under 30. Overall, in my opinion the kind of activism we show can be found in all age groups.

In the film you also mention scientific work on non-violent resistance as a tool for political agitation. Why?
Arash T. Riahi: One of our first shoots was at a conference on non-violent resistance in Copenhagen. During those three days we were immersed in a very illuminating theoretical discourse in extremely dense form, and it laid the foundation for this film. We sensed that from that moment on, all we had to do was accompany the activists. While there we met Yahia Zayed, the Egyptian activist, and then saw him again in Egypt. The conference opened the discourse for us and provided a completely new kind of input. Emphasizing the seriousness of this activism was important to us. There are theses and publications on non-violent resistance, it’s not just naïve daydreaming.

There is however a reminder in the film that non-violent and aggressive resistance must be differentiated. Aggression is very much part of these activities.
Arman T. Riahi: The limits of non-violence are not so easy to define. Some people support the view that non-violence ends when a living being’s harmed. In our film we wanted to show the entire spectrum: There are the Syrian activists who throw ping-pong balls, and there’s Femen, whose members shout their slogans angrily and aggressively. Every protest culture is rooted in the place it comes from. None of them can be exported or imported. Every movement is a product of cultural circumstances. Femen was born in Ukraine because many young women work as prostitutes, and because they don’t have any other way to earn money. In Syria the movement started because young activists, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, started writing slogans on school walls. Protest is subject to different circumstances in every country.

The voiceover is a whisper. Is this an invitation to join a conspiracy? Is the film intended to be, rather than informational, a call to action and encouragement?
Arman T. Riahi: Definitely. The film is a statement. We’re convinced of the value of non-violent resistance, and we consider it essential in every type of society that wants to become a true democracy. We wanted to show that it works. The spoken texts are quotes from various manifestos, so they don’t represent our voice. The whispering creates a kind of alienating effect and at the same time has this conspiratory touch that something’s happening in the underground. That’s why the voice speaks the most early in the film, and then not as much near the middle. New movements are manifesting themselves, and they’re calling for people to actively participate in the process of ensuring human rights.

Arash T. Riahi: Since the film’s episodic and there wasn’t enough time to explain what each movement is about, we looked at their manifestos while doing research and thought that portions of them would be good for outlining what’s involved. That’s why we used excerpts from M15’s Spanish manifesto and that of the American Occupy movement. Using whispering was a filmic decision: Firstly it was a decision not to use a voiceover done by one of us, and secondly we wanted to avoid making the film resemble a television report. The film’s our statement, though it doesn’t express our subjective perception.


Interview: Karin Schiefer

November 2013