The Public Interest: Reporting From The Arab Spring Front – A Conversation with May Ying Welsh– Part 3
THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Reporting From The Arab Spring Front – A Conversation with May Ying Welsh. Part 3 of 3 – Q+A
THE PUBLIC INTEREST brings Welsh to AAIFF’11 for a conversation with Vinit Parmar, Professor of Film Studies and Production at Brooklyn College and the U.S. premiere of Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark. Welsh remaining in Pearl Roundabout in Manama Bahrain after the government banned foreign journalists, documented the civil uprising and subsequent government crackdown collaborating with local activists. Welsh recently received the prestigious 2011 Polk George Polk Awards in Journalism.
Q: What are people’s choices for broadcast television in Bahrain?
May Ying Welsh: There are no channels in Bahrain. You have satellite TV where you can watch Al Jazeera but in terms of the terrestrial channels there’s only Bahraini state television. State TV is there to serve one purpose only.
Q: Who is watching it on the satellite?
MYW: They’re watching it on the satellite. They’re watching Al Jazeera English on the satellite.
Vinit Parmar: The government cannot cut Al Jazeera?
MYW: Apparently not. Otherwise I’m sure they would have done it.
Q: I understand that there was a pirate version with subtitles.
MYW: Right, someone made an Arabic version of it–people wanted to understand it, and that has a lot of YouTube hits. Of the 400,000 hits, 150,000 come from the Arabic one–and the Arabic version is growing faster than the English one. The Arabic version is really popular. It’s being passed around in Jordan and Morocco, two countries invited to join the GCC. A lot of people in Jordan and Morocco are watching the film because they want to know, they want to understand what actually happened in Bahrain–what did the GCC get involved in? What does it stand for? And what does it do? They want to learn more about this power bloc that they will probably join.
VP: Particularly because if they… acknowledge in some way, here or how the government will respond, shut down phones, and shut down the internet?
VP: And then voice their opinion, and say, this is the story, this is the truth, everything else is a lie. Now people in the region have the modus operandi of the kind of government who can do this.
MYW: Right. Also interestingly, a huge viewership of this film is also coming from Saudi Arabia. Some Saudis are expressing in the comment section that “I’m really sorry what we did to you, I’m really sorry because I didn’t know we had supported this.” I think a lot of Saudis are looking at it because Saudis are grappling with the possibility of: will there be any kind of Arab revolt, uprising, reform or even movement in Saudi Arabia? The whole movement, the whole Arab world, is experiencing this change and we’re not going to be experiencing change? Saudis are asking themselves, is it gonna extend farther than women asking for the right to drive? How much will we ask for—in our country? So Saudis, are very little known, are kind of off-limits to the international media–we don’t really know what’s going on inside Saudi Arabia. It’s been interesting seeing a lot of Saudis wanting to watch this film.
VP: It’s very telling about the pulse of the people.
Q: I was at conference in San Francisco that was set up to talk about how the Twitter and Facebook started the revolution—the Arab spring. And there was this wonderful guy from Egypt there, very knowledgeable, and he questioned the premise of this whole conference. He said, are you kidding? He said, it started because of Al Jazeera, so much more than Twitter.
MYW: I agree with that.
Q: And I just want to say that it’s incredible that Al Jazeera has been able to be such an important source, but do you worry about changes in Al Jazeera because of the pressure they felt, because of this film?
MYW: First of all, Al Jazeera totally paved the way for the Arab revolution. Absolutely. It created this pan-Arab solidarity, a pan-Arab platform where everybody in Morocco or Mauritania, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Bahrain, could feel a part of one Arab nation. We’re all speaking the same language, which is classical Arabic, we’re all a part of the same regional bloc which is experiencing and knowing what is happening in each other’s countries. It also created an expectation of freedom, an expectation of freedom of speech. Because on state television in their world, there’s no talking about anything; it’s like Bahrain TV. But then all of a sudden on Al Jazeera, broadcasting via satellite and imposing itself on all the Arab countries, people are talking about the most explosive and controversial topics ever. They’re talking about corruption of Arab dictators. They’re debating this on-air and it made Arabs have an expectation of: why, how come, I can’t have this conversation in my own country? At a certain point, will the chickens come home to roost in Qatar? I don’t think Qatar is unstable in any way; I don’t believe people in Qatar want to overthrow the government. There’s not a large disaffected populace. So they’re lucky that way.
VP: Just as a clarification, that Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar. And that you understand the responsibility they may have been perceived to have helped the uprising in Bahrain.
MYW: Qatar is a member of the GCC and the GCC participated in smashing the democracy movement in Bahrain. Qatar has to live with the other members of the GCC. It has to live with Saudi Arabia, which is gigantic in size, powerful. And it has to live with Bahrain which is like an ally, a little brother or little sister of Saudi Arabia. And it has to live with the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait. At the end of the day, you have to live with these people–you have to be in an alliance with them. One of the most childish things Bahrain did when this film came out was, they came out with a very old film about the Emir of Qatar coming to power by overthrowing his father in a coup d’état. Bahrain put this video on the internet and made a big deal out of it.
VP: So understanding now about Al Jazeera’s role in this, are you aware of anything Al Jazeera is working on as a part two of the story of Bahrain?
MYW: I think we have covered it for a while now and they’re continuing to cover it as a news story. They’re not letting up on that and that’s really good. But I don’t think there will be another film on Bahrain, unless the Bahrainis let us in to do it like properly with permission.
Q: How big was the crew?
MYW: I shot everything. But you can see clearly, some of the video was protester video, because there are a lot of things going on in Bahrain like an arrest in the middle of the night at a village. Those kinds of things were shot by people out there with their mobile phones through windows—trying not to be seen.
VP: So how did you get access to this?
MYW: Bahrain is a very small place and when people have good videos, it will get around to certain networks. The February 14th Youth Movement is the coalition that started the revolt, and they were very organized, like the people in Tahrir Square were very organized. They had a media group that collected and archived videos. February 14th helped me a lot.
VP: And obviously they had to help you before everything was confiscated by the government.
MYW: Many of these videos you can still find on YouTube but I know the source. I know who shot these things, which villages they were shot in, and things like that.
VP: So the February 14th group was actually the group to put this on YouTube themselves?
MYW: Sometimes it’s February 14th, sometimes it can be a Bahraini student who witnessed a drive-by shooting and just put that up on YouTube and nobody knows who she is.
VP: And we’re up to a point where this is amazing, having an internet platform to exchange and use stuff. It, then, truly becomes a grassroots event, grassroots filmmaking.
Audience: But it’s also important to think that Al Jazeera uses these technologies to help them to communicate when they’re not there. These things like BBC, it gives them a reason for doing it—the strength to risk life, but I think they’ve been trying to do things, but we don’t hear about it being covered. But the history of Iran’s situation the government was able to shut down the satellite, shut down Facebook and it was very difficult for me to have access at times. But then, there were people there, talking to each other. What I’m saying is that people, neighbors, will just talk window-to-window, so it’s the technology, yes, but believing in change is what’s new.
VP: You touched upon something I really want to touch upon, wonderful title, SHOUTING IN THE DARK, is a specific event, but we didn’t show it, so if you can talk a little bit about titling it.
MYW: My first impression and my last impression of the Bahraini people was the same. When I first got there, it looked like the pictures from the beginning of the film, people shouting in the dark in the Pearl Roundabout and nobody there covering what they’re doing–they were just there by themselves. And then the last image I have of them, because by that time the movement was completely crushed and everybody was in jail and being forced to make confessions on television, and tortured to death the next day. Things had gone to the lowest point you can ever imagine. But the people didn’t stop protesting. Their method of protesting was to go on to their roofs at night, at eight o’clock or ten o’clock at night and shout Allahu Akbar. It was awesome. When they go on to their roofs shouting Allahu Akbar, you’re standing on top of a hotel roof it’s the most awesome thing ever. You could hear thousands and thousands and thousands of people shouting Allahu Akbar from far and close, and you hear children.
Audience: It’s like a wave.
MYW: It’s like a wave the sensory experience is incredible. Hearing children, women, and adults, and it’s just into the dark. When you hear it, it’s awesome. You had to ask yourself, what are the Khalifas thinking when they’re sleeping and hear this? Another reason people went to their roofs at night and shouted was because nobody could see you–you’re under the cover of darkness, and nobody can see you. You could make your protest heard and nobody can cart you off to prison for that. You’re on the roof of your own home, a safe space. The police would come to the villages and fire flash-bang grenades onto the roofs to try to force people to shut up which only just made people shout louder. Towards the end of the film, I show people shouting Allahu Akbar and it’s not as awesome as it is in real life, but I tried to capture it as best I could.
VP: But it still resonates because you understand it is still left. They’d been beaten, but still alive. And the pulse of freedom is still in their veins.
MYW: Right, and it’s not gonna die. They’re not gonna give up. They’re gonna keep trying, even though they are alone. They’re in the dark; they’re not gonna stop, so that was my first impression and my last impression of them.
Audience: I don’t know what to say, but I feel moved to say something. There are two video clips in there, both historic, which you had pretty much done by yourself. It’s amazing, I’m awestruck! And first one, you are identified with; but the second one is anonymous, but a lot of people know you have done it. And I would say, your life will get a lot more interesting.
MYW: I hope so.
VP: You put in amazing stuff… you’re putting your life on the line to make this stuff, it’s entertaining, but it’s eye opening. It’s eye opening for people in the region, that perhaps will probably ripple into social change.
MYW: I think it’s all gonna change.
Audience (man): I don’t think it’s gonna change in a bad way, like we all go corporate or anything. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I mean, I’m just saying, all along, all these years, you’ve been doing amazing things—taking opportunities when it comes. This is historic. Your name wasn’t on the New York Times …
Audience (man): But still, people know.
MYW: Yea, people do know. Now I actually think: what should I do next? That’s something I’m trying to figure out. I wanna do something interesting like this, but I don’t know what’s it’s gonna be. I don’t have an idea.
Audience (woman): There’s other journalists who have been working for other configurations of alternative television like Big Noise Films, Rick Rowley, Jacquie Soohen, Kouross Esmali, Suzu Salamy, Jaisal Noor, Danny Schecter. It’s almost like our best documentary talent from the US is working for state television of other places. Why can’t we have good journalism here instead of all the people following around Sarah Palin? The US is where it has to change. The hardest thing to imagine is to wonder how much the US State Department has to do with keeping alternative news out of the US mainstream, maybe with the Wikileaks, we can find some proof in that.
MYW: All the Bahraini people are wondering about that. They felt that at the least, the US gave a green light. The fear of the Bahrainis is: how much of the green light is still there? Particularly the crushing of this movement, I mean, Bahrainis are really asking themselves this question right now. What did the US do? And what didn’t they do?
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SHOUTING IN THE DARK has received the UK Foreign Press Association Documentary of the year award, the George Polk Award in Journalism, and most recently the Scripps Howard Jack R. Howard Award for Excellence in Television Reporting. It has been translated into six languages and aired on national television in France, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark in addition to the global run on Al Jazeera English. May Ying Welsh remains in Doha at Al Jazeera.