Taking Liberties

Review by Christiaan Harden

tl09.jpgDirector Chris Atkins wanted to do two things with Taking Liberties. He wanted to make his viewers laugh; and he wanted to make them angry. He did both. His witty and entertaining feature will also prompt many to action – a final hurdle that many documentaries find it difficult to clear. Despite New Labour’s election anthem, unfortunately things haven’t ‘only got better’. They’ve got worse. Far worse. Well certainly in terms of civil liberties anyway; and Taking Liberties has done a wonderful job of revealing their erosion. It’s well-documented, well-packaged, and necessary viewing for anyone who would prefer not to sleep-walk into a police state. Judging by the films production values, particularly its wonderfully stylised graphics and its eclectic, instantly recognisable soundtrack, the project had a pretty decent budget behind it. After 18 months in the pipeline, the money had been very well spent.

The documentary’s straightforward structure – exploring the erosion of liberty one right at a time – never once becomes tiresome as one might expect. Taking Liberties engages throughout and even though the subject of civil liberties is rarely out of the headlines, Atkin’s film is a genuine eye-opener. Thanks partly to a considerable amount of footage courtesy of DV savvy protesters a quite sinister side to Blair’s police force. We are shown peaceful, and legal, anti-war campaigners being taken by police escort back to London; what can only be described as police brutality at yet another peaceful demonstration; and flagrant abuses of Blair’s anti-terror laws passed supposedly to protect our freedoms. Several familiar cases are explored including the now infamous ejection and man-handling of Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party conference. We also meet John Catt who was arrested for wearing an anti-Blair t-shirt and the genuinely shocking case of Mouloud Sihali. He was acquitted of the now infamous ricin plot, but is still under house arrest several years later. They didn’t actually find any ricin. This worryingly authoritarian lurch is blamed primarily on Labour’s paranoid fear of appearing soft on security, but I’m not sure that it tells the whole story. The huge money to be earned in security and surveillance these days we all know plays a important role, as well as the story-hungry culture of 24 news networks and tabloid press.

The case of the Natwest three, a remarkable turn of events that provided Atkin’s with his inspiration, is also examined. Now, it really isn’t often that I feel sorry for wealthy bankers, but they’re innocent until proven guilty and their to be extradition to the U.S. without evidence is wholly unjust, and legally very shaky.

Even if it isn’t always provided with an enormous amount of context, the film’s historical perspective is particularly useful. There’s little doubt that many critics will accuse Atkin’s comparisons of Blair’s Britain to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, as little more than populist sensationalism. This however would be a mistake for a very simple reason. The comparison’s refer only to specific aspects of these regimes and should not be mistaken for anything but. Atkin’s highlights, for example, how compulsory ID cards were introduced in Germany by Hitler because of a supposed threat by the Jews. Sound familiar? The only case that the film fails to make as effectively as others is that Labour over the past 50 years or so have been markedly worse than Conservative governments. Perhaps it is true. But civil liberties under the Tories were barely examined at all and I’m afraid that the case made here just does doesn’t quite stand up.

takingliberties1.jpgComparisons to the Michael Moore school of documentary filmmaking are inevitable, but …. I think they’d only be half right. Atkin’s certainly does a wonderful job, like Moore, of lampooning the powerful. When it comes to making contributors look ridiculous his American filmmaking compatriot still walks away with that award. Atkins however really isn’t far behind. Many of the people he features makes Boris Johnson’s buffoonery look like a shining example of tact and sophistication, who rather ironically provides a voice of reason throughout much of this film. Honestly, he does. The use of emotive juxtaposition between promise and reality, fact and fiction within the edit is also a big leaf out of Moore’s editing book, but that’s perhaps where the similarity ends. It is by no means a criticism, but Atkins plays more of a cameo, to Moore’s leading role. He lets his subjects do just that little bit more of the talking and he’s certainly less confrontational. Like Moore, and an increasing of amount of documentary filmmakers these days, he also understands that to inform an audience it helps if you can entertain them as well. Perhaps the most crucial difference is where Fahrenheit 9/11 and Michael Moore ultimately divided the U.S., Chris Atkin’s and Taking Liberties will unite. Liberty after all is apolitical

Atkin’s has also thankfully avoided the infuriatingly common trap of preaching to the converted. Thanks to his accessible, measured approach, and particularly his cross-party talking heads all singing from the same libertarian hymn sheet, his cheery polemic is almost guaranteed to spur a wider, better-informed debate. It might not be ‘the most important film of the decade’, as its marketers contend, but if I don’t see a more timely and compelling film about a more important subject by 2010, I think that I’d be inclined to agree. Taking Liberties is an inspiring celebration of our rights at a seminal moment in troubling times, and a welcomed reminder of what we’re supposed to be fighting for. Although the film doesn’t offer a solution to the problem of terrorism, the viewer will be left in no doubt that not only does the erosion of our liberties not form part of it – it is probably making things worse. Pulling no punches, Taking Liberties blames only one group of people. Not the politicians. Not even the terrorists. If we fail to act, it will only be our own fault.