Sundance Documentaries Asking Us To Join The Fight For Free Speech

A still from The Fight by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sean McGing.

Two documentary films premiered Friday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to long-standing ovations setting the stage for the bitter 2020 election. Front and center are world leaders going rogue. First, was the 11:30 am premiere of The Fight. Filmmakers Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres (Weiner) take an inspiring and deeply emotional inside look at four civil rights cases the ACLU takes on to fight the Trump Administration.

Filmmaker Elyse Steinberg was on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse in 2017 when ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt argued in court that the Muslim ban was unconstitutional. This moment sets the stage for The Fight. Throughout the 96-minute documentary, the filmmakers follow five ACLU lawyers, including Lee Gelernt, who, following his victory, is fighting family separation at the border. Brigitte Amiri, who represents a minor who is in custody of the Office of Refugees Resettlement and is blocked from having an abortion. Joshua Block and Chase Strangio who are fighting the transgender military ban. And Dale Ho, who challenges the proposed inclusion of a question about citizenship on the 2020 census.

As The Fight interweaves these cases, we get to see the heartache of the lawyers and the clients they represent. There are moments of humor — technology is no friend of Lee Gelernt of Joshua Block — and we are comforted in incredibly heart-wrenching moments when children are reunited with their parents after months apart. We celebrate small victors and some big ones too, like Dale Ho winning his case. We’re left with the understanding that there are still so many more fights. There are more children separated from their parents, transgender people aren’t allowed to enlist in the military, and nine states have made abortion “illegal.” 

The Fight also touches on their controversial decision to represent Nazis, Westboro Baptist Church, Milo Yiannopoulous, and helping the “United the Right” protests to secure a permit to rally in Charlottesville in 2017 that led to the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer. What might be most interesting about this was the internal battle of ACLU lawyers. Not everyone agrees with the ACLU’s approach to represented these fringe groups, while others say it is essential to protect everyone’s right to free speech. 

Following the screening producer, Kerry Washington called the lawyers “our Avengers.” The lawyers who were all on hand to take questions fro the audience responded that it’s their clients who are willing to come forward and attach their names to these cases are the real heroes. All we know, following The Fight, is that there are many heroes among us trying to ensure we are protected. But, real change will only come when the people push back. Will they in 2020? It’s time to fight. 

The Dissident

Academy Award-winning Bryan Fogel (Icarus) premiered The Dissident about Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was critical of his beloved Saudi Arabia and the new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies to an audience that included former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and never came out. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, dissidents around the world, and his colleagues at the Washington Post are left to piece together clues to his brutal murder and the global cover-up. It is an intimate, at times hard to watch portrait of a man who sacrificed everything for the freedom of speech. 

The Dissident provides us with exclusive access to the Turkish government’s evidence and Khashoggi’s close friend and fellow Saudi dissident, Omar Abdulaziz. Abdulaziz, who has been organizing fellow dissidents, provides the viewer with an inside look at the mind of the Saudi Crown Prince and the plans he and Khashoggi had to show the world who the new Crown Prince is. This, Abdulaziz says, is what got Khashoggi killed. The film also touches on the Saudi Crown Prince’s relationship with Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, and his relationship with Pegasus, spyware, that may have been used by the Saudi’s to expose Bezos affair last year. 

Throughout the film, we see how the Saudi Crown Prince uses foreign leaders like Donald Trump, the media, social media, and thousands of paid hackers to change the narrative. Immediately following the screening, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline: Breaking News: Prosecutors have evident Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend gave texts to her brother, who sold them to the National Enquire, people familiar with the matter say. This is counter to the allegation the film makes that it was the Saudi Crown Prince that was behind it. In many ways, we are left questioning everything. What is the truth? Is this another like from the Saudis? 

During his Q&A Fogel made note to say that they are looking for a distributor who will not censor the film in the Arab world and let the world judge for themselves. His passionate plea is to encourage an international distributor to take on this film that is deeply critical to one of the most powerful countries and one of the most dangerous world leaders.

 

 

 

By just judging these two films that premiered at Sundance this year, 2020 is sure to be a politically charged but through it all there are many who are fighting the good fight, putting everything on the line. We are asked repeatedly if we are going to sit on the sidelines or whether we are going to step up and join them.

We highly suggest you watch both of these documentary whenever they make it to one of the streaming service they are bound to end up on.