After last year’s Arab Spring, there will undoubtedly be a host of documentaries and narrative projects with Middle Eastern revolution chanting from their cores. It will be interesting to see how well they stack up against The Reluctant Revolutionary because it should be considered the standard. Sean McAllister‘s tennis-shoes-on-the-ground doc is unexpected in its storytelling and unflinching in its display of the mass murders that cemented the people of Yemen against their leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But this story doesn’t start with crowds shouting from tents. It starts with a tour guide named Kais who can only see his business dwindling because of some disgruntled citizens. He’s actively against the revolution for that pragmatic reason, but even as his professional life deteriorates, his understanding and support of the movement dramatically shifts his opinions.

The second greatest strength of the film might be McAllister’s disarming presence. Normally a documentarian that shoves him or herself in front of the camera comes off as desperate for attention and willing to sabotage his or her own story in the hopes of getting some screen time. McAllister’s first few scenes come off a bit like that, but further down the dusty road it becomes clear that he had to include those early moments as a set up for when the Yemeni government forces him to become a part of the story he’s trying to film. Why he wasn’t on a plane back to the safety of his home after being targeted by the secret police is anyone’s guess, but it’s a damned good thing he stuck around because the footage he got is not just fascinating – it’s vital.

Of course, it’s really Kais – the frustrated yet warm Yemeni man – that anchors the entire project. He’s a sweet figure, one that is strongly opinionated, quick with a joke and struggling with economics and emotions. He’s trying to do the right thing toward his business and family, but doing so seems about as worthwhile as shoving his head into the ground. The ornate hotel he used to run has fallen into ruin, and his only avenue for money is the withering tourism business that was anemic even before people started gathering in the streets. His wife is threatening to leave, he has to borrow money to buy them a few days’ worth of food, and he’s convinced that the movement everyone puts stock in will fizzle out like all the others did before.

Kais, with his cheek full of a leafy drug called khat, looks like a chipmunk trying to smuggle a baseball but his sunken eyes belie a more serious man. Without him, there is no movie.

The introduction of Kais into the blocks that the rebels have occupied slowly wins him over, and McAllister’s constant questions (which come of as genuine and naively Western) force the issue of revolution into the mind of a man unwilling to join the cause.

Then the violence gets worse, and like many of his neighbors, Kais chooses to become a new element of the growing crowd.

McAllister finds himself in places cameras just aren’t meant to go. The plainclothes cops of Yemen who try to infiltrate the movement are highly interested in him, but he and Kais lie daily to protect his status as a harmless tourist. To them, he’s a teacher, but it’s a protected status that won’t last forever. When five journalists are deported, it’s a sign that something huge is going to happen.

Words, with as much faith as they’ve built up over the centuries, are useless in the context of what the movie shows next. The bittersweet nature of the story is blown away by the first explosions and rain of bullets, delivering a wide-eyed look at true violence and chaos. It was enough to make action movies look frivolous and insulting. McAllister captures the very thing the Yemeni authorities didn’t want him to capture, and it’s not easy to watch. Even tears seem like an inadequate response to the manic, screaming triage room that rings out with a terrifying, mortal urgency. The floors are smeared with the real blood of real men dying on screen. Nearby, a skull is caved in. A hole large enough to stick a finger into marks the neck of a man inches away from sucking in the last breath of his life. A 10-year-old boy lies limp on a cheap table.  These are images that don’t fade away. Not from the mind and not from the heart.

The next day, half-full streets were transformed into the image above.

McAllister has achieved something incredible here. The Reluctant Revolutionary is a stunningly humane portrait that shows vividly what’s at stake before leaving it bloody on the Formica floor of a battered concrete building. Fifty-two people died that day. The movement grew, Saleh left his office months later, but things are still burning in Yemen. This doc is the kind of Pulitzer Prize-winning work that boldly and at great risk to personal safety showcases how powerful media can be. It’s entertaining, yes, but it’s also film as indictment. Film as evidence. Film as historical document.

Through a smiling man with a face full of khat, McAllister has utilized a unique window into a world of personal pain and found the beating heart of a country paying in blood to be free.

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