Film is a medium of telling stories. It doesn’t matter whether it is a fictional film or a documentary, first it needs to entertain and it does this by creating a narrative. David Attenborough doesn’t just begin one of his films talking about a bunch of penguins – he creates a mood and a feeling through his inspired ability to piece together various elements which he forms into a story; a story that entertains and then informs.
Silenced, a documentary by Mike Cernovich and Loren Feldman about the ongoing war on free speech, suffers from a complete lack of any form of storytelling. The film was directed and written by Loren Feldman but I failed to detect any evidence of either one. It appears as if Feldman simply showed up to each interviewee and told them to blather on about their random thoughts on the topic of free speech as it now stands in America.
Twenty minutes into my viewing of Silenced I began to wonder when the narrative would begin. Up until that point it was simply a continuous vignette of various interviews with mostly complete unknowns who share their random thoughts on what free speech means to them. Seventy minutes later the film ended with the format remaining rigid in its dull lack of creativity.
The film is loosely hung on several broad themes such as Science, Journalism, Religion, and College, among others. That is the extent to which the writing and direction were executed. Apart from a few rare nuggets of gold that shine in total brilliance against the uninspiring dross that gets repeated over and over again there is nothing here that either informs or entertains the unfortunate viewer.
Which is a shame as this is a topic which is critically important. Every generation gets handed the treasures of our civilization that have been kept, guarded, and defended by the previous generations. But this current generation seems to want nothing more but to throw it all away. Why is this happening and what are they so ignorant of that they would make such a terrible mistake?
At one point in the film an interviewee explains that the oft-repeated slogan that it would not be responsible to yell fire in a crowded theater was originally put forth by a conservative to shut down and ultimately jail a socialist who was protesting against the Great War. What a marvelous opportunity to begin building a narrative – a story about the history of free speech and how many sacrifices were made by people all across the political spectrum so as to arrive at the fragile privilege that we still enjoy today. Such a narrative would entertain as well as inform and ultimately educate the viewer to better understand what we risk by putting free speech in jeopardy.
But that would require the director to write a narrative. He would have to structure his questions for interviewees so as to build and construct the central theme of what form he wanted his film to take. Much easier to just grab a few minor celebrities, a host of unknowns, and Milo, and get them to pontificate on a subject of which some of them clearly know nothing about. How glorious it was for me to listen to some seventeen year old stumble about with his words to let me know that free speech is just so really important, man. Like really important, like.
One of the most frustrating segments was the one concerning science. Feldman and Cernovich could have found some really noteworthy subjects to speak on this topic. People who have spent years if not decades battling not just for free speech but attempting to defend the destruction of science by elements who use scientistry. People like scientist Judith Curry who has long fought against the climate change fraud. Or Anthony Watt who runs the biggest skeptical blog in the world, Wattsupwiththat. Instead we get some unknown young woman who is merely identified with the moniker of “scientist” who tells us that we need free speech because it’s good. There is no context here, and there is no history, and that’s ultimately because there is no narrative.
In the film we get to hear from a cartoonist who drew a picture of Mohammad precisely because he was told that he wasn’t allowed to draw it. A film on free speech that had any semblance of a history of its subject would then discuss the turning point when Islamofacism began to surface in the West. That turning point was the blasphemy charge against Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, an episode where almost collectively the entire Western media and publishing industries rolled over and failed to protect not just one of their own, but the very fulcrum on which hangs everything that their industries depend on – free speech.
None of this is mentioned in the film precisely because there is no narrative at all. But the most glaring omission has to be the titanic legal battle that has been raging for over three years between journalist Mark Steyn and scientist Michael Mann over Steyn’s criticism of Mann’s notorious hockey-stick climate graph. Steyn has already fought a huge battle at great personal cost in the Canadian supreme court that resulted in Canada’s anti-free speech law being overturned. Now he is at the forefront of the same fight in the USA. In Steyn’s own words, “it is the most consequential case for freedom of speech in America in half a century.” The court case ruling has the potential to invalidate the First Amendment. As The National Review says:
… it represents an unprecedented threat to the freedom of speech in our nation’s capital. There’s a reason that a broad coalition of groups including the ACLU, the Washington Post, the Cato Institute, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed briefs in support of NR in the case…
The court’s decision breaks chilling new ground. It creates the Orwellian prospect of a legal proceeding where a jury is asked to impose significant penalties on journalists who have the “wrong” opinion on highly controversial issues such as: What counts as “wrongdoing” in the realm of scientific inquiry?
This court case is ongoing but there is no mention of it in Silenced, let alone an interview with Mark Steyn who is well known for taking any publicity he can get to help his cause. To not even mention this titanic struggle merely demonstrates that the filmmakers don’t know their own subject matter.
On top of all of this are the film’s appallingly bad production values. The few efforts to create interest such as superimposing an interviewee so as to make them appear to be speaking on a video-phone merely serve to highlight the almost complete lack of effort in this regard throughout the majority of the film.
This film is an embarrassment to everyone connected with it. I’m truly surprised that Cernovich released it but I suspect that he was forced to do so due to his public fundraising on Kickstarter. The common response to this film is that it is really important but this is mistaking the medium for the message. The topic of free speech and our defense of it is indeed critically important. This film, on the other hand, is not. It adds nothing to the subject matter, it fails to articulate any coherent points, and a depressing number of its subjects employ truly infantile arguments.
If I awarded stars it would get a big fat zero. And I take no pleasure in writing that.