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Article 12
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by Jay Seaver

"Privacy deserves a better advocate."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's always unfortunate when a worthy topic becomes the subject of a bad documentary, because it can be very difficult to separate the quality of the picture for from the merit of its arguments. Usually, it's not that difficult to be objective judge each separately, but "Article 12" is the sort of self-satisfied preaching to the choir that can push even a sympathetic audience member to investigating the other point of view just so that he or she is not blindly agreeing with these guys.

The title of "Article 12" comes from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; that portion of the document states that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." However, the film points out, this is not always the case; even in democratic republics like the United States and the United Kingdom, privacy protections are becoming weaker, both because of government surveillance and by the voluntary actions of the populace.

There are plenty of good arguments for why privacy is important and why the present day's steady erosion of it is dangerous, and it would be very nice if filmmaker Juan Manuel Biaiń laid them out in a more rigorous, structured way. Instead, he starts by assuming that the audience prioritizes privacy as highly as he does and then repeating a series of dire proclamations about how the weakening of these rights is bad, although there is a curious lack of concrete examples as to why. Sometimes, interview subjects like Noam Chomsky are allowed to make huge, unsubstantiated leaps between premise and conclusion.

And then, toward the end, as the film gets into the "how do we fight back?" phase, it goes in some severely questionable directions. It's not so much that it seems to advocate cracking and other criminal acts as a means of protest (although, given what it has been saying about how governments and their people react to threats in the present day for the previous hour, not mentioning the crackdown that would inevitably ensue seems dishonest), but that it switches from interviews and documentary footage to entirely fictional segments without signalling the audience that it is doing so. Even though it soon becomes clear what Biaiń is doing, it is still dishonest to present rigged hypothetical scenarios in the same manner as the factual statements they are intercut with. That there are multiple segments like this that basically repeat themselves doesn't help.

Perhaps what's most annoying is that Biaiń does have the tools to be a fine documentary filmmaker. He finds a selection of interesting people to talk about on the subject (although he does occasionally slip in a Brian Eno who may offer more name recognition than expertise) and allows them to speak their peace without allowing things to devolve into long, tedious monologues - and to his credit, he neither shoots nor cuts segments with opposing viewpoints in a way that overtly or subtly makes them appear untrustworthy. The film is well-edited, finding a nice rhythm between interview, documentary, and fictional footage that prevents it from becoming a droning talking-heads piece, and has ideas (like how the present surveillance society is roughly analogous to the Church's behavior in the middle ages) that are worth some rumination.

Good ideas aren't enough, though - to make one's point, those ideas must be argued honestly and rigorously, and "Article 12" all too often fails to do that.

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originally posted: 08/14/11 06:38:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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