"Shouting Fire" is another in a long line of superb HBO documentaries. Directed by Liz Garbus the film explores the abusive relationship that both the public and private sectors have with the idea of free speech. As a cornerstone Garbus uses an extended interview with her father, Martin Garbus, an attorney who specializes in free speech cases. Most of the anger is aimed at the right (McCarthyism, Bush II, The Patriot Act), and considering that this decade has been a case study in quashing civil liberties by the right that anger seems well placed.
The first example given is Ward Churchill, the former University of Colorado professor who was chased out of town by Bill O'Reilly and his minions because they found his writings on 9-11 to be odious. The sad thing is that his writings, obliterating the idea of the inherent innocence of American citizens, made brutal sense in retrospect. But the Conservatives, mobilized by their insecurities over their murderous foreign policies and the need to defend corporate interest, would not be denied and eventually Colorado bowed to their commands. So welcome to the land of the free, where saying something you believe in can cost you your job.
The second segment of the film is much less persuasive. It involves Debbie Almontaser, a Yemen immigrant who worked for the NYC school system for fifteen years and was drafted to be the principal of a new dual language (English and Arabic) school that was to be opened. Soon Almontaser found herself on the wrong side of the New York Post and thus the entire Conservative establishment. The reasons why seemed vague and we are certainly led to believe that the Post was simply witch hunting for the sake of newspaper sales (gasp). One talking head Daniel Pipes defends the Post's right to misquote her and take her words out of context under the justification that she was just too stupid not to say "no comment." The segment is problematic, however, because Garbus does not explain why the right to assassinate a person's character does not also fall under freedom of speech. They were after all going after the school itself not her individual right to speak her mind.
The final third of this relatively short documentary blazes through a few more cases just to underline their previous points. There's Chase Harper, a Christian high school student who likes the Bible but not the gays. To voice this displeasure he wears a shirt that is deemed "offensive" and is subjected to a suspension and a police search. Once again our version of "freedom" is on display. Then the film breezes through the Pentagon Papers scandal so fast that anybody not familiar with the case might be a little bit lost. And finally they move on to the most nauseating example of all, the 2004 Republican national Convention in New York. This is very familiar territory for anybody who is a fan of left wing documentaries, but the outrage still burns brightly.
Approximately 1,800 protestors and average citizens just walking the street were rounded up, arrested, and shipped off to an asbestos filled warehouse. Why? Not to maintain order, but simply to make it so that stuffy rich guys could feel secure (they love that) as they went to see "Mamma Mia." The NYPD is allowed to speak for themselves and of course their defense of it is nonsense. But the stupidest comment award goes to David Horowitz who ends with this gem, "When there is a war that has been declared on you there can be no peace movement." That’s just one very idiotic quote in one very strong documentary.
Starring: Martin Garbus, Ward Churchill, Floyd Abrams, David Horowitz, Eric Foner
Director: Liz Garbus
Runtime: 74 minutes
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