Margaret Chew Barringer, Philly's top poet-turned-cultural ambassador and the woman behind the event, has a long-term vision of what it can accomplish and what it can become.
She’s reluctant to speculate too far about what the festival’s future will look like, although she notes she isn’t opposed to the possibility that it could become entirely Internet-based. That’s because the documentary-film scene—like the broader journalism field in general—is in a state of flux, struggling to adapt to viewing patterns that are increasingly moving online, from the public space to the private. The minimalist structure of the Free Speech Film Festival in its first year reflects an entire medium that isn’t sure of its next step, of how it will incorporate the growing number of citizen journalists armed with nothing but smartphones and Internet connections.
This has both its perks and drawbacks. “It’s good to let a lot of voices into the media and to give voice to people to tell their stories,” Curry says. Yet she notes that grassroots storytelling in and of itself isn’t a guarantee of high-quality work, either: “I still believe in journalistic rigor. Before you go and put something up on your blog—or if you work for an organization—you should do the due diligence that you would expect in the journalistic world.”
Barringer seems to find as much value in the process of exploring these topics as in any one specific end result. “There are millions of us out here,” she says, “who are feeling both highly empowered and completely abandoned” by the 21st-century media landscape. “I believe that this is the first time in the history of mankind that generations have grown so far apart so quickly ... and the brains of our children and grandchildren have been imprinted by external corporate technologies from the very start.”
In any case, it seems appropriate for the Free Speech Film Festival to cultivate such discussions in the city that long ago hosted the defining conversations of American liberty. “We’re opening the future of free speech to filmmakers from all over the world, many of whom are very much without it,” Barringer says. “They look to America for guidance on how to handle freedom.”
The Free Speech Film Festival’s screening and awards ceremony will take place at the American Philosophical Society, 427 Chestnut St., on Wed., May 16, at 7 pm. Tickets are $12/student, $35/individual, $85/family, and must be purchased online at americaninsight.org
Six documentaries will be honored as finalists at the Free Speech Film Festival’s awards ceremony. One will be named the festival’s winner and screened in its entirety.
A Balloon for Allah: A look at the oppression of women among the three Abrahamic religions of Cairo, Istanbul and Oslo, Norway.
This is Where We Take Our Stand: Three veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq testify to their experiences.
Free China: The Courage to Believe: The peaceful spiritual movement that swept through China in the 1990s is examined through the experiences of a mother.
I Am Neda: The festival’s shortest film concerns the true story of a woman who fought for freedom amidst tyranny and oppression.
Cointelpro 101: The history of illegal surveillance by the U.S. government from the 1950s through the 1970s.
#whilewewatch: A film about Occupy Wall Street told from the inside.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide