The 2014 Sundance Film Festival was my first time in Park City. I spent the days beforehand steeling myself for any conceivable pitfalls that can trap you while covering a film festival. On my mental checklist were all of the obvious potential missteps, from laying on the hyperbole in praise or criticism to falling asleep during a screening because, for some strange reason, running around a town to catch as many films and events as possible with meager sleep can make you pretty tired. What I had not thought of preparing for though was handling disappointment with how a film that struck a chord with you is received. I had that experience with director Greg Barker's documentary We are the Giant, which I saw at its premiere on the festival's third night.
I thought it was profoundly inspiring and devastating. I was sure that the film was going to be one of the most talked-about entries at the fest. However, as the days passed I began to feel like the only one talking about Barker's documentary. Whenever I was asked what my favorite film at the festival had been thus far, I would answer "We Are the Giant," only to be met with a confused face. I couldn't find anyone who had seen it; more often than not they hadn't even heard about it. Throughout the remainder of my time in Park City, I met only one person who had seen it, a distributor who told me plainly "Good film, but it will never be in theaters." That bummed me out, to say the least.
Here we are a week after Sundance drew to a close, and you would be hard pressed to find much chatter about We Are the Giant. There are simple factors that probably contributed to the mute response to the film. Firstly, it had minimal promotion before its debut and lacked a necessary hook to attract interest (the film's logline was especially vague, not even mentioning that it was about the Arab Spring). The lack of fanfare could have been due to the fact that Barker and his team hadn't completed the doc until days before its premiere.
There is also the fact that any documentary premiering at Sundance has the thankless task of standing out amongst a spoil of riches. We Are the Giant has an undeniable emotional pull, but so did dozens of other docs that unspooled at Park City this year. Two I reviewed during the fest both had a sizable emotional wallop, Fed Up and The Battered Bastards of Baseball, but I'm not worried about how they will fare. Fed Up will inevitably find its way into theaters based on the involvement of executive producer Katie Couric alone, while Battered Bastards has already sparked a fictionalized retelling being fast-tracked at Universal. They are both good films that will get the audiences they deserve, but the future of We Are the Giant remains a question mark.
The biggest liability for Barker's achievement is its own subject matter. The Arab Spring is a vast, complicated and ongoing movement in the Middle East, but the media's attention seems to have been swallowed entirely by only two of its components: the tenuous shift to democracy in Egypt and the brutal civil war in Syria that no doubt is giving the international community a lot of grief. It seems that some people nowadays have written the phenomenon off as a failure; one person to whom I recommended We Are the Giant in Park City told me as much. It could be that the public just isn't that interested in what is unfolding across the Middle East.
That's not to say that films dealing with the Arab Spring haven't gained any traction in the West; the account of Egypt's revolution The Square is a nominee at this March's upcoming Oscars and the Syria doc Return to Homs actually took home the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at this past Sundance. So there are films about the Arab Spring that are getting attention, perhaps occupying the only space available for films like We Are the Giant. But how can we only have enough room for one film at a time concerning something so vast and impactful to the world today?
We are the Giant still has time to build its audience. There will be more festivals and more opportunities to ignite a dialogue. However, its sheer invisibility at the Sundance Film Festival worries me, because I think it's a film that deserves to be seen. You may not come away from the film understanding the political intricacies or economic realities of the many conflicts that comprise the Arab Spring (which Variety addressed with some fair criticisms in its mixed reaction). Nonetheless, I would argue that the film is a unique achievement, framing a regional movement that can be unwieldy in the enormity of its intricacies into a statement that is universal and immediate. It would be a shame for a film so powerful to never find its audience because there just isn't enough room for another documentary about the Arab Spring.