Event Summary: “Witness Bahrain” Documentary Screening on Capitol Hill

On 17 June 2015, Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), in coordination with the office of Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), hosted a screening of the Jen Marlowe-directed documentary “Witness Bahrain” at the Rayburn House Office Building. The documentary gave the audience an in-depth view of the popular democratic movement which swept through Bahrain in 2011, and of the campaign of government repression which has since taken place.

At the event’s opening, ADHRB US Advocacy Officer Kate Kizer delivered remarks on behalf of the organization, stating that she hoped the film would help enhance audience members’ understanding of the situation in Bahrain. Kate Kizer then welcomed Scott Goldstein, Representative Johnson’s legislative director, to the podium. Goldstein, speaking in place of Rep. Johnson, reaffirmed his commitment to the principles of human rights and democracy. After he concluded his remarks, the screening began.

Marlowe filmed “Witness Bahrain” over the course of three weeks, securing interviews with dozens of Bahraini activists and citizens. Some spoke openly, while others spoke behind masks for fear of government reprisal. An underground Bahraini activist assisted Marlowe’s filmmaking, helping her establish contacts, organize interviews, and travel around the country. The documentary covers the cases of medical professionals targeted for treating wounded protesters, profiles the work and impact of activist Nabeel Rajab, details the authorities’ assault and arrest of children, and provides activists with a platform to directly address their government and their fellow citizens.

After the film, ADHRB Grassroots Advocacy Associate Saman Naquvi invited filmmaker Jen Marlowe and Matar Ibrahim Matar, a former Bahraini parliamentarian arrested during the 2011 protests, to speak and take questions. Naquvi asked for Matar’s reaction to the film given his personal connections to the movement and queried him as to how Bahrain had changed since the film was made. Matar complimented the documentary, stating that it was the first to cover the underground medical clinics which government oppression has forced many Bahrainis to frequent. As to recent developments, Matar stated that protests are still widely-attended, and that tens of thousands of people participated in demonstrations as recently as several months ago. Matar also noted that, unlike other Arab Spring countries, the situation in Bahrain had not descended into violence.

Naquvi then opened the floor to questions from the audience. The first questioner asked Marlowe about the difficulties of getting people to speak on film. Marlowe responded to the question by discussing her fortune in establishing a relationship with the underground activist who led her around Bahrain. This relationship enabled her to embed with the pro-democracy movement. Marlowe continued that she would blur or darken the faces of interviewees upon request, but even then she recognized that these people took significant risks to have their messages heard.

The second questioner asked the panelists to elaborate on the United States’ role in Bahrain and in the Arab Spring as a whole, pointing to the continued sale of U.S. weapons to regional governments that had suppressed democratic movements. Matar responded by describing how the U.S. position had fluctuated since the movement’s beginnings. At first, senior U.S. officials traveled to Bahrain in search of a negotiated solution. Since then, however, President Obama’s administration has become passive and is not committed to speaking out on the issue. Where the Administration once criticized the imprisonment of opposition leaders, its officials have hardly spoken about the recent imprisonment and sentencing of Ali Salman, leader of the opposition society al-Wefaq. Matar went on to state that the U.S. has an obligation to help find a solution in Bahrain because of the presence of the 5th Fleet and the special relationship that the Administration has with the Bahraini government.

A third audience member had a two-part question. First, he wanted Marlowe to discuss the Bahraini security forces’ use of tear gas as a violent weapon; second, he wanted to know why the documentary didn’t mention anyone from the al-Khawaja family. Marlowe responded that she tried to portray the dangers of tear gas on multiple levels. First, the film acknowledges that the violent impact of a tear gas canister killed Ali Jawad, an adolescent protester and photographer. Second, the film shows how the excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas endangers the elderly, the very young, and the ill, especially by exacerbating respiratory problems and complications from sickle cell anemia. On the al-Khawajas, Marlowe stated that she spent significant time with Zeinab al-Khawaja, the daughter of the imprisoned activists Abdulhadi and the sister of activist Maryam. Ultimately, the two decided that they would rather the documentary focus on the movement as a whole instead of profiling a few prominent individuals. She also mentioned that a court had recently sentenced Zeinab to a lengthy prison term for her activism.

A fourth audience member asked the panelists to comment on recent developments in U.S. policy toward Bahrain, specifically Rep. Johnson’s proposed amendment to the NDAA which would a contingency plan for the 5th Fleet and increasing U.S. willingness to lift its ban on arms transfers to Bahrain. Matar responded that the contingency plan was a very important step, and that he and other Bahrainis appreciated the Members of Congress working to advance the amendment. As for lifting the hold on arms transfers, Matar stated that it would constitute a completely negative message at this time and would continue a detrimental U.S. policy of sending conflicting messages to Bahrain. The U.S. cannot call for an end to human rights violations on the one hand while expanding the 5th Fleet and continuing with arms sales on the other. These conflicting messages negatively impact U.S. foreign policy because the Administration loses credibility when it pushes for reforms. Marlowe then discussed the wider significance of these mixed messages, commenting that the U.S. government maintains special relationships with human rights violators and chooses to give them diplomatic cover instead of pressuring them to bring about positive change. In this context, repeated U.S. statements of “concern” over deteriorating human rights situations carry no weight.

A fifth questioner asked about U.K. plans to build a new military base in Bahrain. Couldn’t the return of British influence provide the Bahraini government with leverage against the U.S.? Matar urged the U.S. to speak with its European partners about Bahrain, and to present a united position to the al-Khalifa government. When the U.S. tries to deal with the Bahraini government in isolation, it allows Bahraini officials to threaten that they will de-emphasize the partnership in favor of stronger relations with the U.K. or another country.

A sixth audience member asked the panelists to discuss the Bahraini government’s position on other regional conflicts, in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Matar responded that because the Bahraini government is weak, it is constantly looking to ingratiate itself with allies that will offer it support. This support is then funneled to the government and the ruling family, not to the people. In order to maintain this support, Bahraini officials take extreme positions in support of their allies. They are, for instance, the most outspoken on the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Matar continued that Bahraini officials use the same tactic with regards to the 5th Fleet. They volunteer even more than what the U.S. government requests. Matar then provided his own view, stating that the U.S. government should ally itself with the people of Bahrain instead of dealing with the headaches caused by the current government.

The final questioner asked about the Bahraini government’s lobbying efforts in Washington, DC. Matar pointed to a Bahrain Watch report which detailed that the Bahraini government spends roughly $30 million a year to lobby the U.S. and U.K. governments. They also have other GCC states do their lobbying for them. Matar stated that, if he could speak with the GCC governments, he would tell them that they don’t need to support a repressive government in Bahrain because they get so little in return. Where, Matar asked, is the added value for the Saudis and Emiratis in dealing with the problems caused by the al-Khalifa government? They so many issues elsewhere that they should realize that Bahrain is the most solvable of their problems. Marlowe added that the Bahraini government spends so much money on lobbying and public relations to push its sectarian narrative. She reaffirmed the importance of efforts by organizations and filmmakers to counter this government narrative.

At the event’s conclusion, Naquvi invited attendees to view ADHRB’s Dear Penpal exhibit, which displays a series of letters written from jail by wrongfully imprisoned Bahraini adolescents.