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Docurama presents

The First Amendment Project: What's Left of Our Rights? (2004)

"In America, satire is protected speech, even if the object of the satire doesn't get it."- Al Franken

Stars: Al Franken, Carolle Baron, Floyd Abrams, Susan Sallany, Denny Chin, Mitch Hoffman, Liam Rector, Jeremy Glick, Sheryl McCarty, Hans Haacke, Kenneth Jacobsen, Lem Coley, Deborah Jacobs, Mark Goldwert, Stanley Crouch, Michael Meyers, Cass Sunstein, Nancy Parish, Alex Vitale, Katha Pollit
Director: John Walter, Mario Van Peebles, Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:08m:00s
Release Date: 2005-06-14
Genre: documentary

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DVD Review

In case you've forgotten, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Seems simple enough, and one would think that over a couple of hundred years our nation would be following the Constitution rather closely, but the reality isn't always the same as the vision. In 2004, The Sundance Channel commissioned a number of independent filmmakers to tackle some of those thorny issues (thorny depending on where you stand) as part of The First Amendment Project, and Docurama has seen fit to issue three of these roughly 24-minute films on one disc under the subheading of What's Left of Our Rights?

The subject matter varies by film, whether it be freedom of speech (Franken vs. Fox), state-sponsored art (Poetic License) or organized assembly/protest (Some Assembly Required), but the underlying theme by the filmmakers is that the real meaning of the First Amendment is blurred, as a rule, by conservatives. So it is with some Michael Moore-friendly Bush/Republican bashing and a decidedly liberal bias, that some glaring constitutional infractions get bandied about, and depending on where your allegiances lie you will either scream in anger or roll your eyes at the troublemakers.

The lunacy of the strong arm lawsuit by Fox against Al Franken and his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them represents the funny here, in Franken vs. Fox, a film by Chris Hegedus and Phil Noob. Franken hammers hard against Bill O'Reilly, who comes across as foolishly bullheaded, especially when he attempts to discredit the judge who ruled against the case. Of the three films, this one is the lightest in tone, but still paints a bitch slap at constitutional freedom.

But it's not all fun and games, for the other two films on this disc are far more serious (or least, not funny). Mario Van Peebles used Poetic License to tell the controversial story of one-time New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka and his volatile post-9/11 poem, Somebody Blew Up America, which points a long finger at who the poet perceives as the real villains. Somebody Blew Up America is intentionally incendiary—that seems obvious—and even my liberal mind found some of Baraka's comparisons somewhat misleading and simplistic. But that's not really the point. The issue is not so much what Baraka said, but that he was to receive government money as Poet Laureate. Van Peebles relies very little on direct comments from Baraka for his film, which is really who I wanted to hear more from, and because his poem is so unwincingly vitriolic that I would have preferred to hear the poet address the critics directly.

Some Assembly Required, from director John Walter, is set in New York City during the most recent Republican National Convention, and looks at the sea of protesters who were corralled by police and prevented from freely expressing themselves, or so says the film. Again, your mileage may vary depending on where you stand. Organized protests can be a sticky lot, with well-meaning crowds easily morphing into chaos, so I can understand some small part of the police tactics, but the methods seem harsh. Walter follows a diverse group of anti-Republican types, all of whom eventually find themselves penned in by a phalanx of New York City police.

These three shorts should do what they set out to, which is to generate some thought on your part, no matter where fall on the scale.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


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 One Two
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame 1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes yes

Image Transfer Review: For this release, Franken vs. Fox and Poetic License are presented in 1.33:1, while Some Assembly Required has been issued in nonanamorphic 1.85:1. All three films are constructed with footage from a variety of sources, locations and shot under varying conditions, so image quality naturally fluctuates somewhat. Colors are what I refer to as "documentary-ish", meaning they aren't overly brilliant, but rather consistently average. No major print blemishes to be found, but the director lead in segments seem a bit grainy.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio isn't gaudy, presented as it is in a modest 2.0 stereo track that delivers understandable interview segments and narration. Clean, simple and more than adequate.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
7 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Nine Good Teeth, , The Weather Underground
1 Deleted Scenes
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Comic strip
  2. Amiri Baraka Official Statement
  3. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: Extras aren't as plentiful as most Docurama releases, and given the brevity of the main material it seems even more noticeable. Each of the three films feature text-based director bios, but that's where the similarities end. Fox vs Franken highlights a PDF version of an Aaron Hughes comic strip about the incident, Poetic License contains a Mario Van Peebles interview outtake (04m:56s), as well as a set of three Amiri Baraka outtakes (17m:12s), including 12 minutes of the controversial poem Somebody Blew Up America. Baraka's official statement, entitled I Will Not Apologize, I Will Not Resign! is available as a PDF. Some Assembly Required houses one deleted scene (03m:05s), profiling one of the protestors, and a photo gallery of 12 images.

The disc is cut into a total of 15 chapters, or five per film.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

Those who don't think freedoms are trampled regularly in the United States should take a look at this trio of short films about various First Amendment violations. You may not always agree with the subjects, but don't try to tell me that they don't have the right to be heard.

Highly recommended.

Rich Rosell 2005-07-07