HEADLINES

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Andrew Haydon reviews Taking Liberties

Film-maker Chris Atkins’s first documentary, Taking Liberties, bills itself as “a shocking but hilarious polemic documentary that charts the destruction of all your Basic Liberties [sic] under 10 Years [sic] of New Labour.” However, rather than offering anything like a clear-minded argument, Atkins’s film is a scattergun attack which fails to hit its targets.

The film opens with footage of some nice Anti-War ladies on a bus trip to a demonstration being stopped, searched, and forced to turn back by police. From there we are quickly taken to a sinister animated sequence which sagely notes that following the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Hitler introduced laws which led inexorably to Kristalnacht and beyond. The animation goes on to say that following World War II, Churchill and other European leaders laid down a basic structure of civil liberties: The right to protest, free speech, and privacy, coupled with freedom from detention without trial, extradition and torture.

This list becomes the film’s sole structuring device as Atkins combs through the list seeking examples of occasions when the Blair administration can be deemed to have destroyed each of these liberties. It does this without the slightest explanation as to why civil liberties are either necessary or desirable, and why - other than for reasons of being Evil Fascist Bastards - any government might consider removing them. A pity, since these questions are crucial when you are going to spend time attacking not only a government, but also independent institutions like The Sun newspaper, for demanding their removal in favour of specific anti-terror measures. Sadly, with barely a thought for fripperies such as explanations, the film careers off in search of examples of occasions on which these liberties can be deemed to have been removed.

Its success rate in finding illustrative examples depends largely on which civil liberty is being addressed. Much capital is made from 2005’s Serious Organised Crime Act, which proscribed ad-hoc protests from coming within a mile of the Houses of Parliament without permission. Whereas the section on torture is confined solely to Britain’s refueling of planes involved in America’s programme of “extraordinary rendition” and the government’s ongoing, deplorable use of evidence obtained through torture of terrorist suspects in other countries.

The real problem here is that anyone with even the slightest interest in the news will already be well aware of all this. Granted, the film is patently not aimed at people with the slightest interest in either politics or current affairs, but nonetheless it is galling that it has not tried harder to make its points stick. More irritatingly, the informed viewer will already know that these transgressions of civil liberties were all met with a fierce barrage of protest from the media, from Parliamentary opposition, from the public and from within the Labour Party itself. To present each violation of civil liberty as part of an ongoing, steamroller-like programme with some sort of cumulative effect is, at best, a distortion of the truth. For example, the botched police raid in Forrest Gate which resulted in the arrest of Mohammed Abdulkahar, who was shot in the shoulder, and his brother Abul Koyair has been the subject of massive media scrutiny and investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The point is that it was an error. The fact that so much material on the episode exists rather serves to confirm how un-secret our police force is. And this is the elephant in the room throughout the film – if the government was really as intent on eroding civil liberties as the film appears to imply, what on earth would possess them to allow a film such as this to be made?

Chris Atkin’s basic point is more subtle and reasonable: that erosions of Civil Liberties can take place without a programmatic approach and, in an extreme analysis, leave behind the mechanisms necessary to create a police state were one minded to do so.

However, the film does not make this point clearly. Instead, with its heady mixture of video footage, cartoon and angry pop music (Radiohead, the Stranglers etc.), Taking Liberties piles allegation on top of allegation – each more damning by the last, and each unmitigated by context or consequence – with the effect that an unwary viewer could easily conclude that he or she is living in a strangely brutal and repressive regime akin to Hitler’s Germany (always Hitler’s Germany, never Stalin’s Russia, interestingly). This impression is partially defused by the curiously jokey approach that the film takes, however. Its attitude to incidental music in particular is distractingly flippant – at one stage Franz Ferdinand’s jerky spaz-pop anthem Come on Home is used to soundtrack a segment on Mouloud Sihali who has been under “virtual house arrest” in his one-room flat for fifteen months. At the close of the film Jarvis Cocker’s amusing but politically meaningless Cunts Are Still Running the World provides Taking Liberties’s only explicit conclusion. Given the time taken reaching it, it seems a pitifully slight point to have made.

It is worth noting that the film at no point examines other factors which are also curtailing Britons’ liberties. An interesting case in point - the film’s website, when giving a tracklisting for the soundtrack CD, asterisks out all five letters of the Jarvis Cocker song title. Why? This is a document purporting to uphold freedom of speech posted on perhaps the least regulated medium which civilization has ever known, and yet it feels the need to star-out the c-word. More seriously, no consideration is given, for example, to the terrible failures in policing which led to the play Behzti being effectively banned from the British stage, firstly by rioters, and then by the death threats made by the members of the Sikh community against its author Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti.

The aim of the film appears to be to make an imagined army of apolitical, apathetic indie kids hopping mad. I daresay it will probably succeed, but when fired-up on such meagre kindling, the flames of their outrage will likely burn themselves out by the time they reach the cinema foyer.

Andrew Haydon, 2007

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