They're taking a liberty

With his controversial documentary Taking Liberties, director Chris Atkins tells Eye For Film why it matters so much.

by Jennie Kermode

The film aims to raise awareness and galvanise people to action.

The film aims to raise awareness and galvanise people to action.

Jennie Kermode: What got you interested in making a documentary on this subject in the first place?

Chris Atkins: I'd been making films for a few years - low-budget British drama films, arthouse type of things, and the films I was working on had got bigger and bigger. The last one I made was almost too big and it was very, very stressful. So I walked away from that thinking "I want to do something small and low key", and all the things that Taking Liberties now isn't! But when we started I just wanted to tell people's stories because I though it was really interesting but shocking what's happening in Britain.

People are suffering injustice in a way that you'd never expect to happen in Britain. You might find these things happening in South African Apartheid or East Germany or the Soviet Union but you wouldn't expect people to be pulled off the streets without charge or arrested for peaceful protest in Britain. So I found that really interesting, and I also found that what was most interesting was the way that people were reacting to it in very uplifting ways.

So how it worked for me was just starting to follow people's stories. The two stories we started following first were Maya Evans, who was arrested for reading out the names of the war dead, and I thought that was just an amazingly weird story; and then also David Birmingham's story, the NatWest three guy. Just co-incidentally, he was sort of a friend of a friend, and we just started following those two stories and it kind of progressed from there, and through these stories we then discovered the laws - these crazy laws New Labour has been splurging out at a rate of knots. So it was almost through the people we discovered the issues.

JK: Did you run into any trouble with making the film - were people trying to stop you filming at any point?

CA: Yeah, loads! There's that incident we show in the film where the police walk up and say: "What's going on?" and give every one a Section 44 stop and search. That actually happened loads - we lost count. I've got a wall here with loads of bits of paper, and on several occasions they actually said: "Stop filming now." You know. "You can't film us." And we're like: "Well, you're filming us. Why can't we film you?" So at times they actually went out of their way to stop us filming, but that's all part of the fun really.

JK: Did you have any problems getting the film released?

taking a liberty
Atkins has aimed to keep a political balance between right and left with the film
CA: Not really. To give it some perspective, a lot of the industry is really quite protective of films like this. The BBFC certified it really quickly for us. They were really good about that. But other parts of the British establishment weren't particularly helpful, quite frankly.

JK: The feedback we've been getting from our readers is that people are always concerned that this sort of project is going to be about a bunch of extremists ranting, but obviously that's not what you have here. How did you go about getting the balance of contributors to stop that from happening with your film?

CA: With productions like this it's so easy for it to be sidelined off and so easy for it to be hijacked by the left wing or the right wing, and it was really important for us to keep it very balanced between right and left - so whenever we interviewed Boris Johnson we also got Tony Benn and when we interviewed Ken Clarke we also got Claire Short. But one of the things which I think gives it its heart and soul is that actually there's very little of those people in it; they're in it for a couple of minutes each.

The real heart and soul of it is the people, the people's stories, and that's really what the film's about. It's about Maya Evans and David Birmingham, and just to pick those two examples you couldn't find two people more polarised really in socio-economic context. Maya is a Vegan chef from Hastings, David is - well, he's not a millionaire banker any more, but he was a very wealthy banker. You look at somebody like Brian Haugh, and then you look at somebody like the two grannies who are helping people under house arrest and they're from such different backgrounds.

I like to think we've covered the full range of social and political backgrounds. These people couldn't be further apart in terms of who they are, but they're all drawn together by this over-riding theme of injustice. The key, I think, is these people's stories - the ordinary people at the bottom of the pile who have been trodden on by this government."

JK: Do you think this will help in getting people into cinemas? You're up against a lot of summer blockbusters and it's always difficult to get people to watch a documentary.

CA: It's an uphill struggle, and I'm not going to pretend we're going to out-sell Ocean's 13 or Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End, but what's helping us, I think, is that people are getting sick of this endless, endless re-heating of old ideas; so we're up against all these things which are really a bit bland.

But then, as a punter, I go to see blockbusters as much anybody. I see two to three films a week at the cinema, and I think people are starting to get more turned on to documentaries. Also, Michael Moore films aside, there've been a lot of great documentaries coming out of America in recent years - things like Murderball, Grizzly Man and Spellbound - films like that that are really quite exciting and quite new and fresh.

I think people are starting to go to the cinema to see documentaries more and more and hopefully we can be part of that and show that British people can make good documentaries, too - they don't have to be American, talking about American issues. And it has to be on film, because, I have to say, this just wouldn't get shown on TV in its current state. If the BBC made it, it would be five minutes long, after their self-censorship people had finished with it. So we are trying to say that this is something only cinema can do.

JK: Do you think cinema has more freedom in this regard because it's more independent of national government?

taking a liberty
Chris Atkins urges people to take action
CA: Oh, utterly. There's no way we could have talked about these things the way I have done - openly criticising the government - in the mainstream media. One of the things the film tries to do is say to the public: don't believe everything you read in the mainstream media; don't use the mainstream media as your only source of information. If you look at the ricin trial, for example, the way the BBC reported the ricin trial was tantamount to smears.

They were all innocent and there was no ricin, but if you look at the BBC website and the Newsnight we show in the film, they're talking like these people are all terrorists. They're nothing of the kind, and the public need to understand that the media is part of the problem. A lot of the media just goes along for the ride because they want to sell papers and they want the ratings. We're told there are a million terrorists running round this country, but we were also told there were WMDs in Iraq. It looks like the media just hasn't learnt its lesson from the Iraq disaster. They're still trying to convince us that we're all going to die tomorrow when the actuality is there is a terrorist threat, but it's nowhere near as big as the government makes it out to be.

JK: Do you think this kind of film can make a difference, or do you think it will mostly reach an audience of people who are already sympathetic?

CA: That's the ultimate question, isn't it? I don't want to be just preaching to the choir, though, as Michael Moore commented, sometimes the choir needs a bit of preaching to, but aside from that our ambition in this film is to preach to the congregation and to actually get this message across to people who don't normally talk about this sort of thing.

We've used the tools of cinema to communicate this and to get it out there. Call me in a week's time and I'll know the answer, in a sense at least, because it's on limited nationwide release this weekend and if the numbers are good - if enough people go and see it - it'll then get pushed out beyond the arthouse circuit. So this weekend really is the litmus test, so if people do care about it, please, tell friends and family to go and see it this weekend and we might just make a difference.

JK: If people see this film and come to share your point of view, what would you suggest that they do to make a difference?

CA: First and foremost, vote. I mean, for goodness' sake, we're just not voting any more. Two generations ago people died on beaches in their tens of thousands to keep us a democracy and I think it's a horrible stain on this generation's reputation that people don't vote any more. I'm not telling you who to vote for, you know, but I just think people should go and make a cross on the ballot paper. Once every five years, getting out of bed and trudging down to the local school to vote really isn't that much effort. So first and foremost, vote.

Secondly, people should engage more with politics. Democracy isn't just about voting every five years, it's holding your MP to account. The internet is a wonderful thing and you can find out how your MP votes. If he votes in a way you don't want him to - be it green issues, be it fox hunting, be it civil liberties or be it taxation, all these things that are happening that by and large people aren't very happy with - use democracy, make them work for you. Tell your MP that if they don't vote the way you want them to vote you'll fire them. Just remember: we are the bosses; they're the servants. Start making them think that we care. They think we don't care. They get very well paid by the public to represent us and they're not doing it and we're not doing anything about it.

Thirdly, I think more people should go out onto the streets. Internet petitions are all well and good but there's nothing that strikes fear into the heart of a politician more than seeing people in the streets. As soon as they dismiss protest, that's a very good sign that it's working. So join the mass lone demos. It's summer, you'll have great fun, you know, men can meet women, women can meet women; it's a good way of forming friendships and maybe something else. I know a couple of relationships that have started on the mass lone demos. We all go to the pub afterwards and it's great fun. If several thousand people go to mass lone demos the Metropolitan police will beg Gordon Brown to repeal the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. They've got so many better things to do with their time. We need to start acting like citizens in a democracy."

JK: So has making the film changed the way that you engage with politics?

CA: Utterly. It's transformed me as a person. And I think that goes for all of us - I've been taking the credit here, but there's a team of us who made this thing all together, and without exception we've al changed. It's quite a young team. I'm only just 30 and most people in the team and in their twenties. I think we've matured as people but also just woken up, really, to what's going on around us.

I now go to two or three protests a week, I sign petitions and I get people involved. I think there's a little bit of humbling responsibility that comes with this film to say to people: 'you can make a difference and you can change things'. When people come together, there's no stopping them. So yes, for me personally, it's completely changed my outlook. Everyone walks out of the cinema looking really depressed but I tried to make it uplifting at the end - I tried to say look, just engage and get out there and cause trouble and you can make a huge difference.

JK: Finally, do you want to tell us a bit about what you have planned for the future?

CA: All I'm doing at the moment is trying to sleep and failing and spending all my time doing interviews and trying to promote the film. What I've realised with this documentary is that it doesn't stop just because we've stopped making the film.

Gordon Brown is making some very scary noises about extending pre-trial detention to 90 days, so I'll be campaigning against that and trying to organise more protests, so the story isn't over for us on Taking Liberties; I'll be spending the rest of the summer boring people to death about Taking Liberties. Then I'm going to take a bit of time off. But, you know, I can't go back to making self-indulgent low-budget films, which I've probably spent too much time doing over the last ten years. We've found a successful formula, I think, and we're going to make other films about other issues. We'll try to continue the story.

Taking Liberties is on release this Friday. For more information about the film and where you can see it, visit: www.noliberties.com.

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