Projecting Freedom: Rebellion and Revolution at the Movies

As the citizens of more than 20 countries celebrate their independence in July, commemorate the shared struggle for liberty with these captivating films and series. 

Graphic Image of a film strip with images of revolutionary events, form left to right Tahir Square Egypt, the Singing Revolution in Estonia, and the 1956 Hungarian uprising. A statute of Simon Bolivar is pictured in the center.

Illustration: Gil Wannalertsiri/Freedom House


July is chock full of national independence celebrations, and not just in the United States. Some 26 independence days occur this month, spanning continents and centuries—from the Netherlands’ rejection of Spanish rule in 1581 to the culmination of the 2011 referendum that heralded South Sudan’s formation. As this busy calendar suggests, no one possesses a monopoly on the desire for freedom, nor the bravery to risk everything in order to fulfill it.

Practically since the advent of moving pictures, filmmakers have fictionalized, recorded, imagined, and even inspired or supported fights for freedom. While filmmakers and moviegoers may be guided by their own national and cultural narratives, the untold numbers of films and series inspired by revolution amply demonstrate how universal the desire for self-determination really is.

Here are four movies and shows that tell inspiring and thought-provoking stories of revolution around the world:

The Singing Revolution (2006) 

Available on: Kanopy (free with some public library memberships in the United States), Tubi, Prime Video

This is the story of how culture saved a nation. The Singing Revolution is the heartrending and hopeful firsthand account of Estonians’ multigenerational struggle to reclaim their homeland and their sovereignty, as they endured decades of Soviet rule and the harsh interregnum of Nazi occupation. Throughout it all, one thing held Estonians together and gave them hope: singing.

Estonia possesses one of the largest folk song collections in the world. It also hosts the Laulupidu Song Festival, which began in 1869 and became a venue for peaceful protest during the communist era. Despite the Soviet propaganda machine’s attempts to co-opt the event, Estonian composers, conductors, and singers would sneak patriotic songs past the censors and perform them in Estonian rather than Russian. In the words of one participant, “Each person could go to work the next day knowing that the Estonian spirit survives.”

Warning: The soaring choral music and themes of sacrifice and perseverance had this writer in tears by the end of the opening credits.

Estonia was rated Free (94/100) in Freedom in the World 2023 and Free (93/100) in Freedom on the Net 2022.

The Arab Awakening: Tweets from Tahrir (2012) 

Available on: Al Jazeera

One of three Al Jazeera short films documenting the 2011 Arab Spring, Tweets from Tahrir tells the minute-by-minute story of the hopeful, tumultuous, and violent events in Egypt through interviews with five young Cairenes. The film’s subjectsHossam el-Hamalawy (@3arabawy), Tarek Shalaby (@tarekshalaby), Mahmoud Salem (@Sandmonkey), Mona Seif (@monasosh), and Gigi Ibrahim (@Gsquare86)—not only participated in those events but took the then unprecedented step of live-tweeting it all. While Twitter is now inextricable from the story of the Arab Spring, Shalaby emphasizes that revolution would have entered the technological age one way or another: “It was a symptom, not a cause. If there hadnt been Twitter, thered have been something else.”

The film’s poignancy ultimately derives from its timing. Completed before Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s election as president in 2014, Tweets from Tahrir is a story not only of courage and hope, but of the dangers of postrevolutionary complacency.

Egypt is rated Not Free (18/100) in Freedom in the World 2023 and Not Free (27/100) in Freedom on the Net 2022.

Bolívar (2019) 

Available on: Netflix

“When a person is anxious for freedom, there is nothing in the world that can stop him,” Simón Rodriguez tells young Simón Bolívar, his defiant but eager pupil.

Dozens of filmmakers have interpreted the life of Bolívar—liberator of what are now Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela from the Spanish Empire—through a range of genres, formats, budgets, and political lenses.

In this 60-episode Netflix series, three actors portray four stages of Bolívar’s political life: a young aristocrat who is wounded by the deaths of his parents and grandfather and torn between his idealism and the trappings of his socioeconomic status, a young man educated in Spain and captivated by the principles of the Enlightenment, a zealous militia officer in the Venezuelan war of independence, and a renowned military commander and statesman who grows disillusioned by the realities of postrevolutionary politicking.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer has only watched the first five episodes but is so far impressed and plans to finish the series this summer as a good example to her readers.

Venezuela is rated Not Free (15/100) in Freedom in the World 2023 and Not Free (30/100) in Freedom on the Net 2022.

The Silent Revolution (2018) 

Available on: Kanopy, Tubi, Plex, Prime Video

After hearing news of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on a clandestine broadcast of Radio in the American Sector (RIAS, the predecessor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), East German 12th graders hold a moment of silence during lessons in solidarity with the Hungarians’ revolt against their Soviet occupiers—and find themselves the targets of a state investigation intent on identifying and exiling the instigator.

This drama has it all: strong performances, an examination of generational trauma and the (sometimes) unwitting repetition of history, a surprisingly unhackneyed adolescent love triangle, character development distributed across the ensemble, a twist that advances both the narrative and the message, a satisfyingly poignant ending, and a nuanced exploration of the humanity within evildoers and the idea that “in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

Germany is rated Free (94/100) in Freedom in the World 2023 and Free (77/100) in Freedom on the Net 2022.