Dir. Chris Atkins, UK, 2007, 105 mins
Cast (narration): Ashley Jensen, David Morrissey
Review by Richard Badley
Following the pioneering new wave of US documentary makers comes Britain’s answer to Michael Moore: Chris Atkins. Barely seen on camera, he’s not as confrontational and, without the dressy stunts of The Yes Men, he might not be as daring but Atkins takes a decidedly British approach; simply letting the chilling facts speak for themselves. The resulting documentary is a sometimes humorous affair but one where the wry smile slowly gives way to a sombre grimace as the audience is presented with Britain’s people gagged and helpless while law after law robs them of their basic civil liberties.
There’s no love lost between Atkins and his subject Tony Blair in this look back over the Labour PM’s 10-year-reign which saw thousands of new laws introduced that promised protection from terrorism but are instead turning Britain into a police state; watched, recorded and probed from millions of CCTV cameras. As Blair turns his back on the country, cutting his losses before heading to America, Atkins makes sure he gives him a glorious two-fingered send-off by examining the six civil liberties that have been slyly eroded away during his tenure: right to protest, right to freedom of speech, right to privacy, right not to be detained without charge, innocent until proven guilty and prohibition from torture. All standard rights that everyday people blissfully think are still holding the country together but that Blair has spectacularly ignored.
"Won’t affect me" cry most people, so Atkins crams in an array of case studies ranging from middle class old dears branded the ‘new face of terror’ to persecuted immigrants under house arrest for no reason or, worse, left to rot in Guantanamo Bay to prove that this affects everyone. Atkins neatly ramps up the concern, beginning with the ridiculous tales of police procedure gone mad as it takes 14 of them to put an end to a pre-planned and peaceful protest by two people before interviewing poor Mouloud Sihali who’s constantly hounded for knowing someone involved with the infamous Ricin plot that never was.
There is little evidence that any of the government’s measures since 9/11 or 7/7 have done the country any good. The consensus in Atkins’ film is that they are largely laughable but, worse, hint at a more sinister Britain of the future. Through bold animated segments, courtesy of Nexus Productions, the audience is given history lessons on how the age old right of Habeus Corpus no longer applies, meaning anyone can be guilty until proven innocent, while also equating ID cards to East Germany’s attempt to introduce a national database of its citizens, tracking their movements from cradle to grave. In instances like these the documentary heavy-handedly presents Britain as an early Nazi state, also idolizing Churchill as a hero who was forced to introduce similar measures during wartime but later repealed them, which seems like shock-tactics but it’s tactics like these that must be used to force the apathetic masses off their comfy sofas to show they won’t be stripped of their freedom by actually voting out the government.
Mark Thomas, the comedian famous for his activist stunts, manages to coral wannabe protestors to each individually fill-out forms en mass in order to voice their opinions but the film scarily shows how helpless everyone is becoming in being able to do so freely, even a ‘Bollocks to Blair’ t-shirt is deemed a police matter. The fact is that Blair’s government failed to listen to anyone except for the front page of The Sun, who, after the 7/7 bombings, splashed headlines demanding 90-day holding periods of any terror suspect which the panicked government tried to push through. Meanwhile, the people of London dutifully got back to work and, as survivor Rachel North says in the film, “even if I had died, I wouldn’t want the constitution shredded on my behalf.”
This isn’t a documentary full of conspiracy theories, there’s no evil overlord poised to guide us all into a new world order. This is a documentary of realistic proportions and simply slaps the audience round the face to wake them up to what’s happening right now. Even as the film is released the police are being handed more powers to stop and question anyone they choose. It’s about how a quiet society, mired in a climate of fear whipped up by the media, has let a misguided leader bulldoze through reactionary laws that have done nothing but make sure we’re even more suspicious of those around us. The terrorists themselves couldn’t have hoped for a more complete demolition of democracy’s foundations but luckily Atkins has provided the early warning. Combining pop culture, even shining an accusing spotlight on TV’s 24 as pro-torture US propaganda, with its own satirical sketches and a hip soundtrack, Taking Liberties inspires debate, something this country has been sadly lacking for the last 10 years.