"I'd much rather have someone express themselves through a poem, a piece of art or a movie than a car bomb." - Mario Van Peebles, "The First Amendment Project"
What's left of our rights? This is the question posed by "The First Amendment Project," a joint effort between the Sundance Channel and Court TV - by commissioning a series of half-hour documentaries on various aspects of the First Amendment, the two channels attempted to shed some light on a section of American life that is too often explained away in glib soundbites and never fully explored. As the Patriot Act is renewed in bits and pieces and journalists face jail time for doing their jobs, the First Amendment remains as embattled as ever. In viewing these three short documentaries, one is reminded yet again of the fine line between democracy and dictatorship - it doesn't take much for a country to cross the line and forget itself and its values. While our country's laws continue to take the occasionally bruising judicial and legislative punch, they remain intact and functional - but for how much longer? In a nice twist, each of the filmmakers here are interviewed before their film screens, which gives viewers a chance to hear why and what made each of these directors tackle these subjects - in lieu of a commentary track with each film, it's the next best thing and adds a nice touch.
The first (and arguably the best) of the three half-hour documentaries is The War Room veterans Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob's Fox vs. Franken, a bitingly funny dissection of the infamous Fox News Channel/Al Franken face-off stemming from his best-selling satire "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." Relive the uncomfortable confrontation between bulldog Bill O'Reilly and Franken at the Los Angeles Book Expo; follow the legal process into the bizarre and bewildering court appearance featuring strained presentations from the FNC lawyers - by keeping things light, Doob and Hegedus underscore the willingness of a major cable news network to attempt thoroughly destroying someone with whom they disagree. By far the most entertaining and engaging of the three documentaries, Fox vs. Franken is an enlightening look at the ins and outs of copyright infringement.
Director Mario Van Peebles (Baadasssss!) helms the second installment, Poetic License, which delves into the dicey prospects of state-sponsored art and what happens when said artists create works that don't meet with widespread approval. Centered on the infamous former New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka poem "Somebody Blew Up America" and its fallout, Peebles uses the stirring and controversial poem as a jazzy counterpoint to his exploration of Baraka and his art, as well as exploring the repercussions from Baraka's refusal to pull punches or apologize for his point of view. A passionate, confrontational piece, Van Peebles' work is faintly experimental but very much keeps with the tone of Baraka's poem and the topics being discussed.
The third and final short documentary, Some Assembly Required, is directed by John Walter (How to Draw a Bunny) and centers on the epic protests surrounding the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Fascinating but ultimately a little too didactic, the film explores the infamous protests through four different individuals who are all involved in the marches. Walter largely lets the four individuals tell their stories and utilizes a lot of hand-held camcorder footage; while it gives the film a raw immediacy and places the viewer right there amid the roiling crowds, it also becomes difficult to tell what's where and who you're supposed to be following. Also, the minutiae of planning peaceful dissent slows the film down and I felt Walter was a little too hung up on sticking to the four subjects, failing to give more context to the protests. Nevertheless, it's a solidly crafted film that makes its point and adds to the overall series.
All three documentaries are presented as originally broadcast on the Sundance Channel in 2004 - 1.33:1 fullscreen. Looking as clear, if not slightly clearer, than broadcast, all three documentaries (which use news footage in addition to filmed interviews) have a crisp, clean appearance and no discernible visual defects.
Dolby 2.0 stereo, as originally broadcast, is the only audio option available here. A mix of fresh interview footage along with news and footage from other sources makes for slight variations in volume but for the most part, everyone is clearly heard with no distortion or dropout.
Bonus material is included for each film: Fox vs. Franken features some extra comic strips not used in the final product as well as director's biographies; Poetic License boasts the most supplemental material, with nearly five minutes of interview outtake footage from Van Peebles as well as over 17 minutes of Baraka outtakes, including a complete performance of "Somebody Blew Up America;" Some Assembly Required has a three-minute deleted scene titled "Profile of a Protester." Also onboard are trailers for other Docurama titles as well as a Docurama catalog.
"The First Amendment Project" is a unique experiment - allowing filmmakers to explore the delicate balance of the First Amendment by ripping stories from today's headlines and seeing if America's civil liberties remain intact. Unpopular, irreverent or politically incorrect expression doesn't always please everyone but thanks to our Founding Fathers, we as Americans have the option to say most anything we want, whereever we want - may that hard-won privilege continue without ceasing. Recommended.