The First Amendment Project

The First Amendment Project (DVD)
Directed by: Mario Van Peebles, John Walter, Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob

In addition to being an advocacy group for free speech, The First Amendment Project is a Sundance Channel film collaboration that explores the famous First Amendment in the United States Constitution through a series of short documentaries. The First Amendment is, of course, the section of the constitution that is supposed to give people the power to keep their government in check, and essentially defines the U.S. as a democracy. So in other words, what we have is another political documentary that follows in Michael Moore’s footsteps more or less. The only problem is, while higher in credibility than Moore’s films, The First Amendment Project is not quite as fun.

What is impressive about the project, however, is the line-up of directors they were able to recruit for these 3 short films. The First Amendment Project consists of the following 30 minutedocumentaries: “Fox vs. Franken”, directed by Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com), “Poetic License”, directed by Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Baadasssss!, Panther) and “Some Assembly Required”, directed by John Walter (How To Draw A Bunny, Guns & Mothers). Each film explores a different aspect of the First Amendment, opening with a brief introduction by the filmmakers as they explain the purpose behind their movie.

“Fox vs. Franken” is the most amusing and energetic of the 3, mainly because it prominently features comedian Al Franken and his struggle against Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media conglomerate Fox. If you’ve seen the movie “Outfoxed”, this won’t surprise you one bit.Franken released his book “Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right” in the summer of 2003, but Fox Television attempted to bar its release through legal red tape related to his use of the tagline “Fair and Balanced”. It mixes footage of Franken recounting the events during a spoken word performance, along with actual press conference footage and interviews with various people who were involved (including the judge from the trial, who later went on to be demonized by Fox News as part of a different news story).

Mario Van Peebles’ “Poetic License”, on the other hand, is a bit more serious and dry. It explores the issue of censorship in art, and the fine line between artistic expression and potentially offensive material. Amiri Baraka, a political activist and writer who was appointed Poet Laureate of New Jersey, wrote a poem called “Who Blew Up America” that many felt was anti-semitic. The film consists mostly of talking heads analyzing Baraka’s poetry and discussing whether or not they believe it was appropriate, along with some excerpts of Baraka himself reading the poem. While obviously addressing an important issue, the film didn’t really bring up anything new or interesting with regards to censorship.

The final short film, “Some Assembly Required”, follows the protests in New York City during the Republican Convention of August 2004. While some protestors were hassled by police without good reason, nothing too extreme happened… which is a good thing obviously, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting documentary.

Each of the films are short and self-contained, and they definitely feel like episodes of a TV series — which of course they are. The movie might have been more memorable if it had mixed all 3 pieces together into a feature-length film. Also, while the pieces were intended to be kept short, they were limited by the fact that they each only explored one specific incident, some of which were rather mundane. Overall, the project was a cool idea and explored topics worthy of discussion, but it isn’t likely to blow any minds, nor will it keep awake anyone who isn’t interested in politics to begin with (with the possible exception of Al Franken’s chapter). — Sean

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