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IFFBoston 2009 – Day Five – The World You Make with Forbidden: 3 of 3

Marco Bechis’ Birdwatchers could have gone horribly awry.  Surficially an extinction survival story, pitting a dwindling indigenous people against the encroachment of the outside world that encircles and threatens to strangle, it could have been a treacly morality tale espousing the nobility of the native against the evils of modernity and our collective lost way.  But it is not.

What it is, is a take on competing interests making a place for themselves that has echoes of Israel and Palestine.  Everyone needs to live somewhere, but how do you peacefully co-exist when two groups lay claim to the same space?  Which carries more weight: “We were here first” or “To the victor go the spoils”?

Light-hearted and serious, comedic and tragic, Birdwatchers strikes the right balance in a tale of classic confrontation.

The afternoon screens the third film in our Forbidden trilogy, spotlighting three documentaries that explore the places that we cannot go.  Today’s topic – A Free Country: Speak No Evil.

One of the hallmarks of American identity is the belief that we live in a “free country”.  That is never more evident than during a disagreement, when it wouldn’t be surprising to hear one party declare to the other something like: “I can say what I want!  We have ‘free speech’ in this country!” or “You’re trying to take away my freedom of speech.”

At the same time, Americans will also concede that there is some restriction that is allowable, or even necessary.  Such restriction would be demonstrated in a common phrase like “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater”.  The fact that you can, if there is an actual fire, makes this the epitome of common wisdom regarding this topic.  Most people who live in a safe middle ground think they know where the margins are, but haven’t truly considered them and many “don’t do nuance”.  Further, for many, those margins are fluid and undefined, like former US Attorney General Edwin Meese’s take on pornography; they’ll “know it when they see it”.

This is the setting for Liz Garbus’ latest documentary, Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, which surveys the boundaries of what is acceptable speech and what is not.

This is an argument that goes back to the very founding of this country.  John Adams was one of the primary motivators of the American Revolution and the creation of the Declaration of Independence.  Yet, he was the defense attorney for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, because he believed everyone deserved a fair trial.  However, when he became the second US President, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts and used their authority to jail critical journalists and silence political opponents.

It’s easy to defend the rights of people that we agree with, but what about those with whom we disagree?  From neo-Nazis planning to march past Holocaust-survivors in Skokie, Illinois to war-protesting flag burners facing off against injured veterans; from abortion protesters outside a Planned Parenthood clinic to fair-trade placards by the hundreds raised in Seattle against the World Trade Organization summit, the history of this country is rife with examples of people expressing themselves under the banner of the First Amendment.

Using interviews with figures - including her father Martin, a First Amendment lawyer – who approach this topic from various angles, Garbus reveals the complexity of the topic.  When does one’s right to voice a different opinion escalate to a violation of community standards?  When does your right to speak your mind impinge on someone else’s right to not have to hear you?  When does a public judgment about someone else’s life become hate speech?  How much freedom do you sacrifice in the name of peace and security?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but the discussion is worth having.  Although I’m pretty sure that when someone interrupts you with a “don’t go there…”, it’s not legally binding.


Have you ever seen a show you liked so much you couldn’t wait to go back and see it again?  Well, if you’ve just seen a performance by the duo known as TJ and Dave, you’re out of luck.  It’s not that you can’t see them again; it’s that they’ll be doing a different show.  Because TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi don’t rehearse and deliver a prepared piece.  They are masters of improvisation and craft a truly unique hour of entertainment for each show.  Then they do a backstage post mortem wind down and… toss it all away to start anew next time.

In Trust Us, This is All Made Up, director Alex Karpovsky follows TJ and Dave as they each prepare in their own way for an evening’s performance. He then records the performance itself, which starts from a dead stop and picks up speed, careening to an unknown destination, yet somehow finding one.  It is spontaneous, brilliant and funny.  Personally, I can’t wait to have the chance to see them live - but I won’t expect to be quoting lines from the movie, because, trust me, this is all made up.


Much of the skeletal structure of Rupert Wyatt’s The Escapist would give the appearance of an edgy take on a classic prison break thriller. 

With a cast led by Brian Cox and supported by a handful of under-appreciated actors like Joseph Fiennes and Damian Lewis, this could be a solid film even if it were strictly by the book, but the ensemble’s teamwork adds muscle and sinew to hang some meat on those structural bones. 

Clever direction, pace-setting editing, and a parallel-track, time-shifting script flesh out a form with a depth that goes beyond the flat caricatures so often seen in formulaic rehash (which this is not).

The final piece is Cox’s embodiment of central role Frank Perry.  The latest in a career laced with noteworthy portrayals, Cox’s tour de force turn gives Perry, and the film, a heart and soul.  It is the perspective of Perry that sets The Escapist apart and brings it to life and it is Cox that allows Perry to breathe the sweet fresh air of freedom.


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