The government doesn’t want you to watch this film. You might get ideas. You might get angry. Or at least, Chris Atkins hopes so.
Taking Liberties is a documentary making the case that the Blair government has passed laws that grant it unprecedented power over its citizens by restricting the right to protest and to trial by jury. The film’s purported aim is to "make people laugh, and to make them angry", following the Michael Moore protocol for blockbuster documentaries (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911). However, it’s more rigorous and focussed than one of Moore’s diatribes, and less funny: whereas Moore got laughs by goading extremists into making preposterous, offensive statements, Atkins has sought out moderates.
The range of people interviewed broadens the film’s appeal and strengthens his case: he speaks to subjects as diverse as a man currently under a "control order" (read "indefinite house arrest") after being acquitted of terrorism offences, to the first people to be arrested under the Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005 (two grannies who were protesting near a military base), to a 7/7 bomb survivor. The majority of the film consists of such interviews, which are interspersed with snippets of news footage and illustrative excerpts from Fawlty Towers.
Atkins also includes animated sequences in which he puts the legislation in a historical context by trying to draw parallels with similar laws passed by totalitarian regimes. The simplistic presentation of the history of totalitarianism might rile some of you, but its premise that the restriction of our rights facilitates further abuses of human rights, is indubitably correct. However, that’s not to say that totalitarianism is a necessary consequence of bad laws: it requires that the authorities apply them too. The film neglects to mention how the Blair government has increased the accountability of public bodies through the Freedom of Information Act, which gives us the right to request information held by public authorities. Nor does Taking Liberties tackle the issue of our unwritten constitution, and whether a Bill of Rights could protect citizens from the government (it is interesting to note that no US citizens are held in Guantanamo, whilst nine British citizens are). By excluding these peripheral issues, the film maintains a precisely defined and coherent narrative. It is necessary to keep the argument simple because film is not an appropriate medium for the presentation of a sophisticated political thesis.
Taking Liberties suffers from the fact that we are used to being emotionally manipulated by films. The mass of fiction presented via visual media means that we are inherently suspicious of films, and doubt their veracity. Atkins counters this by treating the whole film as an advert for activism – the closing sequence offers the audience a selection of contact details for campaign groups, accompanied by a voice-over exhorting us to act on the issues that matter to us.
The intrinsic value of Taking Liberties is not as a work of art but as a call to arms. It’s highly informative about the 3000 new criminal offences created by the government in the last 10 years, and about the woeful misapplication of the laws. It may have been sexed up but it’s still fit for the purpose.