As Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is near death on the 58th day of a hunger strike protesting his imprisonment, we look at an award-winning documentary that tells the story of the uprising in Bahrain with extraordinary footage shot entirely undercover by Al Jazeera English reporters. It’s called "Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark." We speak with the film’s director, May Ying Welsh, the only Western television journalist to stay throughout the violent government crackdown on demonstrators, as well as the doctors and nurses who treated them. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn to Bahrain, where the country’s best-known human rights activist is on the 58th day of a hunger strike. According to those who have seen him most recently, 51-year-old Abdulhadi Alkhawaja has been moved from prison to the hospital. They say he could die at any moment.
His detention has led to calls for the cancellation of the Bahrain Formula One race scheduled for later this month. The government has been touting the race as a sign that the people of Bahrain are united and the situation on the island kingdom has returned to normal after a year of protest.
Alkhawaja was arrested last April during a government crackdown on protests by the country’s Shia majority that has been demanding greater rights from its Sunni rulers. He has been refusing food since February 8th to protest the life sentence he received in June for allegedly plotting against the state.
In the past year, Bahraini security forces have killed dozens of demonstrators. Hundreds more have been arrested or fired from their jobs. The island nation is a key strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an award-winning documentary that tells the story of the uprising in Bahrain. With extraordinary footage shot entirely undercover by Al Jazeera English’s May Ying Welsh, the documentary Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark was awarded the George Polk Award for TV documentary on Thursday night. The film has also received the Scripps Howard award for in-depth TV reporting and the 2011 U.K. Foreign Press Association’s Documentary of the Year Award.
We’re joined by May Ying Welsh here in New York. But first let’s play a few minutes from the opening of the documentary, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark.
MAY YING WELSH: Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Arabian Gulf, where the Shia Muslim majority are ruled by a family from the Sunni minority, where people fighting for democratic rights broke the barriers of fear only to find themselves alone and crushed. This is their story, and Al Jazeera is their witness, the only TV journalists who remain to follow their journey of hope to the carnage that followed. This is the Arab revolution that was abandoned by the Arabs, forsaken by the West, and forgotten by the world. With the world’s cameras trained on Cairo and Tunis, on February 16th, we discovered what felt like a secret revolution: no lights, no TV crews, just a people shouting in the dark.
BAHRAINI REVOLUTIONARY 1: [translated] Something inside was pushing me to go. I have to participate. I have to go. I can’t just stay at home and watch TV. I can’t do that.
MAY YING WELSH: Tens of thousands had come to Pearl Roundabout in the heart of the capital to call for democracy.
BAHRAINI REVOLUTIONARY 2: When I saw the crowd over there, all—really, it’s the whole Bahrain is out here. It’s the real revolution. Whoever was afraid, fear being broken on that day.
MAY YING WELSH: And it was all happening just one hour’s drive from the oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia, the fulcrum of the global economy.
BAHRAINI REVOLUTIONARY 3: [translated] All of these years, we had been inside our villages, separate and isolated. This would be the point of takeoff for us. This will be the beginning of our freedom.
MAY YING WELSH: They went to bed that night in the street, believing they were already free. At 3:00 a.m., the government moved to evict sleeping protesters from Pearl Roundabout. Police swarmed the camp with shotguns and clubs. Anyone too slow or injured to run was beaten by police. At Salmaniya, the country’s main hospital, the aftermath was on view. Hundreds of protesters were shot, tear-gassed and beaten with rifle butts. Dr. Ali Al Ekri was there.
DR. ALI AL EKRI: It was chaos. We cannot see anything. It was dark. It was—we were in tears. Everybody is panic. Kids were just under us. I just pulled one lady, one of the—with me. And another child was there. I was just going out. And he says—he pointed to me. I told him, "I’m doctor! I’m doctor!"
MAY YING WELSH: As distraught family members flooded in, doctors and nurses broke down, overcome by the scenes of violence that shocked this small Gulf nation. For hours, the hospital’s ambulances were prevented from reaching protesters who were injured and dying.
DR. GHASSAN DHAIF: There is a ministerial order from the minister of health not to send anybody from the paramedics or the ambulance people in order to serve the casualties. So, let them lie in the street. Let these police people do whatever they want.
MAY YING WELSH: Any uniformed medic caught trying to save protesters at Pearl Roundabout was attacked. Dr. Saadiq Al Ekri, a senior surgeon, was handcuffed and beaten.
DR. SAADIQ AL EKRI: I was wearing the uniform for the doctors. You know, that one would be with the—with the Crescent. Then they tie me, and they attack me, while I’m crying. Then, I don’t know how many people, maybe 10, maybe 20—I don’t remember—are beating—from everywhere, I was being hit by sticks, by legs. Then, I don’t know. Then they—they told me, "Get up, or we will kill you."
MAY YING WELSH: After breaking Dr. Ekri’s nose and ribs, he says police pulled his pants down and threatened to rape him. Four had died at Pearl Roundabout.
AHMED ABU TAKI: My brother, he was sleeping next to the roundabout. Then, the policeman, he’s coming. Then they shoot him, when he was asleep. He’s going there because he’s looking for work. He’s only 22 years.
AMY GOODMAN: The opening scenes of Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, directed by May Ying Welsh, the documentary shot entirely undercover. May Ying was awarded the George Polk Award last night. She’s a journalist with Al Jazeera English.
May Ying, welcome to Democracy Now! You are remarkably brave. But we at Democracy Now! knew this years ago, because it was during "Shock and Awe," the bombing of Iraq in those first days, March 19th, 20th, 21st, you were our reporter on the ground, running outside with a satellite phone. You’d say, "There is a bomb in front of us." And we’d say, "Run in the other direction. Go inside." You’d say, "No," and you would keep on running and reporting. So, we know what you are made of, May Ying. Talk about this documentary that is truly a stunning document of what has taken place in Bahrain in the last year.
MAY YING WELSH: Right. We, Al Jazeera English, were the only journalists that really came to Bahrain early and stayed throughout the entire crisis, from the beginning of the uprising to the pretty much final crushing of it in April. We stayed almost the entire time, and we followed these people. And so, I think we have the only full document of what really happened there. In order to stay that whole time, you know, as they started to go underground, as the crackdown deepened, we also kind of had to go underground. We started having to move out of the hotel. We started being chased around Bahrain by the police, you know, from place to place. We took the SIM cards out of our phones. We had to go to people’s homes unannounced to do interviews. I wore an abaya and a hijab and put my camera in like a feminine purse. And we did a lot of things to try and basically stay in Bahrain, as they were deporting and, you know, saying goodbye to what few journalists were there. And we had a very great sense of responsibility for those people, because we knew we were the only people that were getting the story, and so we felt we’ve got to stay, and we’ve got to get this complete story out there, so people know what really happened in Bahrain.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what kind of pressure came on the network, in terms of the coverage, and then, finally, in terms of the airing of the documentary last August on Al Jazeera English?
MAY YING WELSH: OK, huge pressure was put on Al Jazeera to remove this film from the air. I mean, the first thing that happened after the first airing of the film, just a few minutes after midnight, the foreign minister of Bahrain sent out a tweet saying, you know, that—basically attacking Qatar for having aired the film and, you know, complaining about—he sent out several tweets. Even one of the princes, one of the king’s sons, sent out some tweets against the film. And there was a social media firestorm against the film. There was a diplomatic letter of protest that came from Bahrain to Qatar demanding that it be removed from the air.
And, you know, Al Jazeera’s response to that was actually to give the regime a chance to respond to the issues raised in the film by creating more programming. So we had some talk shows and other things that we brought, in addition to Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, just to get people talking even more. And that’s one of the really good things about the film, is that it got people in the Gulf talking about taboo subjects, about sectarianism, authoritarianism, one-family rule, you know, these issues which are not talked about, you know, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Qatar is a part of the Gulf Cooperation Council that was supporting the Bahrain monarchy, so this was—
MAY YING WELSH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —extremely significant that Al Jazeera was producing this.
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the overall uprising and the role of the doctors and the nurses, why they became targets and remain on trial today.
MAY YING WELSH: Right. I think—I mean, I think that the reason why—from what we saw, I mean, we spent a huge amount of time with those medical staff. I saw them unannounced. You know, we would show up at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning at the hospital. We saw them at all hours of the day. We saw a lot of the patients. You know, we really saw what happened at the hospital over the course of two months.
And, you know, I believe, personally, based on my observations, that the reason why—what they did wrong was they allowed journalists into the hospital to film the aftermath of what the crackdown had meant physically on the people, you know, the injuries that people had, the deaths. They let us film people who were dying, and as a result of the regime’s violence. And I think that really, really was what they really did wrong. They supported the protesters, in a sense of they treated them. They gave them, you know— what do you call it? — help and aid.
AMY GOODMAN: And they treated the police, as well.
MAY YING WELSH: They treated police, as well. I saw that with my own eyes. And they treated everybody. They treated everybody that came into their care. But I think what they really did wrong was they scandalized the government.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I want to go to another clip from Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark. This excerpt includes your conversation with opposition MP Matar Matar, who urges the United States to support democratic forces in his country.
MAY YING WELSH: The only gathering allowed to the people was a funeral. Amidst the trauma, Shia mobs formed to punish the only people they could: the impoverished Asian immigrants living among them, simple workers suspected of being policemen. In early April, Bahrain started a campaign to destroy Shia places of worship, demolishing 35 mosques. The government said they were illegally built, though many had been standing for decades. Police launched a campaign of house raids in Shia neighborhoods. When a raid ruined the home of journalist Kareem Fakhrawi, he went to his local police station to file a report, where he was jailed and tortured to death.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.
MAY YING WELSH: But when it came to Bahrain, the champions of freedom were silent.
MATAR MATAR: I don’t ask the United States to help. I believe that United States have obligations here. They classify us as a strategic ally, and they are having their Fifth Fleet here in our country. They should say that they are supporting democracy. They should say it clearly.
MAY YING WELSH: Not long after this interview, masked men pulled Matar off the street and took him to prison. There were no international journalists in Bahrain. There was only the word of state TV.
STATE TV: [translated] Treason is a filthy ocean, and the traitor is so filthy he is not made any filthier by the swamp he is drowning in.
MAY YING WELSH: When the government demolished Pearl Roundabout, state TV censored the moment of collapse, because it killed a worker.
BAHRAINI REVOLUTIONARY 3: [translated] When I’m sleeping, a lot of times I dream we are returning to the roundabout. To this day, I dream it is there. I don’t feel it is broken.
MAY YING WELSH: State TV had been right about something. At Pearl Roundabout, all the masks had fallen to reveal the authentic face of a nation, where a country is not its rulers, but its people. And this was a place where, for once, the story was theirs.
BAHRAINI REVOLUTIONARY 2: There was no fear from anything, because they felt of their freedom soul. They touched that soul of freedom, where—this is the point the regime in Bahrain, they don’t understand. The Bahraini people touched the soul of freedom. They won’t go back. They won’t go back.
MAY YING WELSH: Each night, the people of Bahrain go to their rooftops and call out to God and each other. The world’s cameras have left, and their revolution remains as it began: a people shouting in the dark.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark by filmmaker May Ying Welsh. The documentary has just won the George Polk Award along with many others. May Ying, your bravery, in being undercover, many of your interviews are in silhouette. Talk about the journalists you describe who were tortured to death.
MAY YING WELSH: Right. There’s two journalists in Bahrain who were tortured to death. And we know a lot of journalists who also were just tortured, arrested and tortured. The government did take a lot of the journalists that covered the Pearl Roundabout and detained them, sometimes in order to pressure them to hand over photographs to identify—so that they could identify who else had been at Pearl Roundabout. Other times it was because they accused them of feeding information to Iranian-owned news agencies like Press TV and Al-Alam, which, you know, that was a very difficult thing, was to see our colleagues—that happen to our colleagues. I mean, that happened to so many of the people. Everybody that you see in the film that we interviewed was, with like only one or two exceptions, was arrested, and most of them were tortured.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, there was so little outrage internationally or condemnation, really, of the Bahraini government. Your sense of how the population felt about being basically ignored in much of the world?
MAY YING WELSH: That was devastating for them. I mean, they felt alone, really alone. They felt nobody was standing with them. They felt, you know, the Arab world wasn’t standing with them, because they were Shias. You know, people had been told that they were a fifth column for Iran, and a lot of people were believing that, and that really hurt them a lot. And because they had sort of stood with the Egyptians when the Egyptians rose up, and they had been standing with the Palestinians for a long time, they were very hurt that nobody stood with them. And they were very upset that, you know, the United States sort of didn’t have anything to say about the fact that they were asking for democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, sort of all the things that we say, as Americans, you know, that we stand for and we want to see spread around the world. And yet, it seemed like the United States was kind of supporting the Khalifa ruling family. So they were really, really deeply disappointed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the Navy Fifth Fleet is there.
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. is very close to the Bahraini monarchy.
MAY YING WELSH: And very close to the Saudi monarchy. And I think that might be the main point of conflict for the United States government, is that, you know, if you are to support the Bahraini—if they were to support the Bahraini democracy movement, that would come—that would put them in direct conflict with our strong allies, the Saudis, who really don’t want to see this, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And your footage is very dramatic in this film, of the Saudi soldiers coming in.
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: The tanks rolling in.
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We are getting tweets, as we are speaking now, about Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. At the end, you refer to him getting a life sentence, the human rights leader, activist on hunger strike, now on his 58th day, has been moved from prison to the hospital. We’ve been talking with his daughter. People can go to our website for that. From Twitter, "People now marching to A. Karim roundabout for protest in 10 min. Also [in] Aali, protest starting soon [&] people wearing #Alkhawaja face masks." Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is near death, people calling for his release. As we wrap up, and we see the end of your documentary with people shouting in the dark, as you say, they now take to their rooftops to pray at night, so their faces won’t be seen.
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah, I mean, I think things have gotten a little better in Bahrain since this film was filmed. I mean, you know, at this time, this was April. During April, people—the only place people could protest anymore was on their rooftop at night, you know, where nobody could see your face. Now there’s a little bit more freedom to protest.
AMY GOODMAN: Although Alkhawaja remains near death.
MAY YING WELSH: Although, yeah, there are like several people that are in prison for life in Bahrain, basically because they went to Pearl Roundabout and protested and demanded the fall of the regime.
AMY GOODMAN: May Ying Welsh, we’ll have to leave it there. The documentary, Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, is on YouTube. Anyone can watch it. Congratulations for your work.