How to Start a Revolution


Soft-spoken Harvard poli-sci professor Gene Sharp is an unlikely mentor for the architects of the Arab Spring. But as first-time documentarian Ruaridh Arrow reveals and ultimately belabors, Sharp’s 1993 handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy helped influence the resistance movements in Egypt and Syria and before that in Serbia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and beyond. Arrow is no Errol Morris—he relies almost exclusively on the word of Sharp’s acolytes as proof of the book’s efficacy, and the film fails to mention that its much-heralded “198 methods of nonviolent action” have been implemented by some less-than-nonviolent regimes. Still, it’s easy to see how Sharp’s astonishingly simple framework for toppling tyrants through nonviolence could lead to a “eureka moment” for nascent revolutionaries: Intriguingly direct and almost surreally logical, it gracefully refutes the notion that force responds only to force. The problem is, as doc-ready as Sharp’s ideas might be, How to Start a Revolution isn’t much of a movie. It leans heavily on familiar TV news clips, as well as repetitive reflections from the frail professor, a few understandably reverent followers, and the droningly adoring Jamila Raqib, who heads Sharp’s Einstein Institution. It’s a whole lot of talking from not nearly enough heads, all punctuated by bombastic musical cues and laborious metaphorical scenes of Sharp tending his orchid garden (they’re fragile flowers that require careful nurturing, you see). How to Start a Revolution plays like a Nobel Prize–campaign film and never once demonstrates an understanding of the distinction between encomium and inquiry.