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Q&A: Larry Diamond’s documentary on democracy activism

Larry Diamond ’73 M.A. ’78 Ph.D. ’80 is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Diamond’s work as a democracy advocate inspired the recently released documentary “A Whisper to a Roar,” which explores the personal stories of democracy activists in Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

The documentary, for which Diamond was a producer, won high praise from critics and leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who commented that “the film is not only a riveting documentary, but also offers inspiration to people everywhere who seek to make governments accountable to the citizens they serve.” The Daily spoke with Diamond about the film’s origins, its critical reception and its future.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): How and when did you come in contact with [director] Ben Moses about making this film?

Larry Diamond (LD): Ben is a documentary filmmaker who did [1997 Oscar-nominated film] “Good Morning, Vietnam” based on his personal experience in Vietnam. I came to know him through a mutual friend some years ago. We simply stayed in touch and when my book “The Spirit of Democracy” came out, I sent him a copy. Eventually, he approached me with an interest in making a documentary that would in some way capture the themes and– if I can say– the spirit of the book that I had written.


TSD: What was your role in making the documentary?

LD: I was involved in framing the content of the film. There were a few of us who met intensively to ask what themes we wanted to address, how were we going to cinematically display those themes and what countries were we going to feature in the film. When we decided on the themes, then we had to decide whom we were going to interview. I was on-site for some of the country filming, and worked closely with the director on all of the content issues from beginning to end.


TSD: Why those countries in particular? Viewers would have a strong interest in Egyptian democracy due to the Arab Spring, I imagine, but why the others?

LD: We selected Egypt before the Arab Spring. In fact, we were largely done by the time the Arab Spring erupted. We wanted to depict and explore countries that were in the midst of democratic struggles. We wanted to look at countries that were geographically diverse, but also diverse regarding where they stand now in the struggle for democracy and diverse in terms of the types of political systems that they have.

We have a country that’s achieved a very inspiring breakthrough into democracy: Ukraine. We have a country that had been a democracy and then lost it, and then is now struggling to achieve it: Venezuela. We have a country that has some multiparty competition, but also has a very authoritarian dominant party, and is possibly on the cusp of democracy: Malaysia. We have a country that has never been a democracy, but has an overwhelming dictatorship: Zimbabwe.

We chose countries that were not only geographically diverse but also diverse in terms of their political systems and diverse in their degree of authoritarianism.


TSD: When the film was first screened, how did it feel to see the work come to fruition?

LD: I felt elated and inspired. You know, the pieces of the film are great because of the stories of democracy and individuals taking risks in order to achieve their ideals and defend their rights, but you can also see that normally in studying democratic contexts of both individuals and countries. When you see this woven together with the artistry that Ben Moses has brought to it– with the animated fable at the beginning of the movie that’s revisited later, the very inspiring musical score, the extraordinary archival footage that presents the historical context of these countries, the countries juxtaposed against one another, and the universality of the struggle for democracy– it’s a much more powerful story than a story with just any one individual.

It demands a lot from the audience. There’s a lot of interview material that is in the indigenous languages and then is subtitled. I think that, from an artistic point of view, it’s a very powerful achievement. When I first saw it screened as a film, it was in our studio, not in a public setting, and that’s when it first struck me that we have something quite extraordinary here– but then to see it for the first time publicly screened, and to see the audience’ reaction to it, was very gratifying.


TSD: How did it feel to get such good reviews from the press?

LD: You just never know with reviews. You know, reviewers are fiercely independent-minded individuals and artistry is something that is profoundly subjective, but it was obviously very deeply gratifying, and these reviews appreciated not only the aesthetic dimensions of the film, but also captured what we were trying to do and convey on a substantive level.


TSD: How have audiences responded to the film?

LD: Generally, we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the people in the audience. At least every screening I’ve been at has ended with spontaneous applause at the end of the screening. And that’s probably been the most heartwarming element of it. Audiences have generally been deeply appreciative. After the screening at the State Department, we got a great letter from [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton.


TSD: How did it feel to receive such warm praise from the Secretary of State?

LD: That was one of the highlights. During her four years as Secretary of State, she has made a priority out of supporting civil society and trying to promote and advance democracy around the world by embracing, defending and giving financial and technical support to civil society groups around the world who are struggling for democracy.

What we have portrayed in the film was an extension of what she was trying to do… The fact that she recognized the link between these stories and struggles and lives and what she was trying to do as Secretary of State, and that this resonated with someone who has made such a high priority of trying to support these kinds of efforts, was deeply gratifying.


TSD: Ultimately, where would you like the film to go from here, and what kind of impact would you like for it to have?

LD: Basically, I’d like the film to be seen by as many people in the United States and around the world as possible who might either be able to be more sensitive of the global nature of the struggle or take inspiration from the fact that there are individuals around the world struggling for democracy… We’re hoping that it might be shown on television both here and abroad, and that as many people as possible will be made aware of the fact that freedom is not something that can be taken for granted, that there’s an active global struggle for it, that people have been risking their lives for it, and that these are very inspiring and important stories.

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