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Last Updated: Friday, 1 June 2007, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
Taking liberties?
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

People will only wake up to the destruction of their civil liberties when it is too late to do anything about it.

Taking Liberties publicity picture
Tony Blair was a 'handy villain' for the film

That is the fear driving a new documentary film which aims to do for civil liberties what Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's anti-George Bush polemic, did for the anti-war movement.

Director Chris Atkins wants Taking Liberties to shake the British public out of their apathy over what he sees as the dangerous erosion of traditional rights and freedoms under Tony Blair.

"This film uses shock tactics. We needed to be unashamedly populist.

"We wanted to give people a slap around the face and then they can go away and unearth some of the more complex cases," says Atkins.

But although it shares a producer - and some stylistic tricks - with Fahrenheit 9/11, Atkins is wary of too many comparisons with Moore's film.

Tony Blair was a "handy villain", he says, but it is not enough to try and pin the blame on one political leader who is, in any case, standing down soon.

"We didn't want to make the British Fahrenheit. We didn't just want to say 'this guy's an arsehole, let's get rid of him'.

"This issue is far more important than one leader. Once you give up traditional liberties such as free speech and the right to protest you are not going to easily get them back," says Atkins.

Personal freedom

Tony Blair has often insisted that he understands the need to balance new police powers with the protection of civil liberties - but he is also confident he has public opinion on his side when it comes to fighting terror.

Parliament square protester Brian Haw
Brian Haw has been a thorn in Labour's side (PIC: Marc Vallee)

His argument, as he explains in an archive clip in the film, is that it would only take one more atrocity to silence the civil libertarians, and have people asking why he had not gone further.

Atkins' argument - told through a mix of animation, news footage and interviews - is that Labour has over-reacted to the terror threat, using it as an excuse to bring in a series of alarming curbs on personal freedom.

"If I had died, I would not have wanted the constitution to be shredded on my behalf," says Rachel North, who was injured in the 7 July attacks, at one point.

There are interviews with Walter Wolfgang - the veteran peace campaigner ejected from the 2005 Labour conference and briefly held under anti-terror laws for heckling Jack Straw - and Maya Evans, arrested for breaking the ban on unauthorised protests in Westminster for reading out names of soldiers killed in Iraq near the Cenotaph.

Sinister tales?

David Bermingham and "the NatWest Three", the bankers extradited to America on fraud charges, and Parliament Square protester Brian Haw, also feature.

It can happen to anyone. It isn't just middle class lefty protesters
Chris Atkins, director

The film also tries to highlight what Atkins sees as the more absurd aspects of new anti-terror laws. There is much footage of gleeful protesters trying to outfox baffled-looking police officers, struggling to apply the new laws.

But there are more apparently sinister tales too.

In one sequence, climate change protesters picketing an airport are held for a day and a half under anti-terror laws before being released in an unknown location, without phones or money, and told not to speak to each other again.

Atkins claims the film is "politically neutral" - the only MPs to give their views are Conservatives Boris Johnson and Ken Clarke and former Labour minister Clare Short.

Rendition flights

But he says his requests for interviews with senior Labour figures, such as Mr Blair and Jack Straw, were rejected - and found himself being held under anti-terror laws as he attempted to buttonhole Home Secretary John Reid at last year's Labour conference.

"We actually interviewed Geoff Hoon but then he refused to appear on film," he adds.

Climate camp protest
Climate change protesters were arrested under anti-terror laws

Mr Hoon's comments, on the issue of rendition flights, will appear instead in an accompanying book, which like the film will be released next Friday, 8 June.

Atkins is a recent convert to the civil liberties cause. Until two years ago, he was a producer of low-budget dramas in Scotland, mostly known for his work with director - and former lead singer of punk band The Skids - Richard Jobson.

He says he raised the cash for Taking Liberties by borrowing from friends and persuading his girlfriend to mortgage her flat - "something she won't let me forget."

As a result, he says, he is conscious of avoiding the sort of dull but worthy film that will be seen "by about seven people".

'Lefty protesters'

He keeps interviews with "civil liberties nerds" - as Liberty chief Shami Chakrabati describes herself at one point - to a minimum, focusing instead on the personal stories of those who have fallen foul of new anti-terror laws.

"It can happen to anyone. It isn't just middle class lefty protesters," says Atkins.

"It isn't just people you read about in the papers. A lot of people haven't gone out of their way to find trouble. Trouble has found them.

"That was the message we wanted to get across - if it can happen to them it can happen to you."

Atkins' only hope is that, with an initial release on just 20 cinema screens around UK, in London and other big cities, it will create enough of an impact to break through to the mainstream audience at which it is aimed.

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