Speakers Corner (USA & United Kingdom, 59 min 10 sec)
Directed by: Gavin White
Lisa Carter (voice)
'Speakers Corner: You Have The Right To Remain Vocal' is a 1 hour documentary film that serves as a modern commentary on the origins and fragility of freedoms of speech and assembly. Since 1872, people have gathered at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park to exercise their rights to free speech in all its forms. The filmmaker weaves interviews with park speakers, hecklers, local politicians, historians, linguists and sociologists involved in this modern phenomenon to create a powerful critique of the true nature of democracy in our society. The film examines in detail a place where socialists, Islamic fundamentalists, labor politicians, historians, utopians, Zionists, white supremacists and Christian evangelicals all congregate weekly in a single small location. All are freely expressing and debating their views, there is no violence, and thousands of people show up to participate - every Sunday. This is the essence of Speakers Corner, a small area of Hyde Park, London, which was protected by a British Act of Parliament in 1872, to allow people complete freedom of speech in a public place. This is the only such bastion of free speech in the world and stands as a powerful metaphor for global democracy and our future.
Q and A with Gavin White: Speakers' Corner by Lina Zeldovich
LZ: What inspired the idea of the film?
GW: I had just moved from Melbourne to London and was working as a Producer on a show called "The Media Report" for European Business News (now CNBC). I was broke and discovering London, looking for a film project that wouldn't take me away from my day job. One Sunday my sister and I were walking through Hyde Park & saw Speakers' Corner for the first time. I was mesmerized, mostly by the sounds, the chaos and yet the order all around. As it was only held on Sundays, it was the perfect subject for a documentary!
LZ: How long did it take you to make it? You seem to have footage from the 1998 in your film? Were you working on it back then?
GW: 11 years! I shot every Sunday for 3-4 years through every season – it was quite a labor of love. The project languished for a while due to lack of funds, but eventually I convinced enough people to assist and make it a reality.
LZ: Are you required to have a permit to film at Speakers’ Corner?
GW: Um, yes. I did get that permit – once. It's a funny story, because once people saw the permits around our neck, everyone challenged us and it changed the entire dynamic of the scene.
LZ: Was there ever a political push to ban Speakers' Corner?
GW: Not that I’m aware of, but it is the site of famous acts of defiance, such as Tony Benn's reading of the banned MI5 expose book (published in Australia due to the ban) called "Spycatcher" - everyone turned up to film him. He gave a speech, and then as he opened the book, all the cameras were turned off. When he completed reading and resumed his speech, the cameras were turned on again. It was amazing.
LZ: Do you think there should be a Speakers' Corner in every country, every big city, etc?
GW: I think every city/country should allow forums for individuals to be heard, to have a voice, particularly a public voice. As Tony Benn says in the film – those examples of free speech "are a symbol, and symbols are important."
LZ: In your film there’re no episodes of speakers getting "physical" and starting fights. Did you ever see it happen?
GW: No – there’s a lot of disputes, debates and arguments, but the Royal Parks police are extremely vigilant in defending a peaceful tourist location. They aren't rough themselves, but they are present and actively involved in maintaining the peace.
LZ: Did anyone ever get arrested at Speakers’ Corner for saying the "wrong things?"
GW: I've heard some shockingly horrid things there and I’ve never seen someone arrested for that. I have seen people arrested for physical provocation, but not for what they said. Hecklers do a good job of holding outrageous speakers in check – they play a critical role there.
LZ: A few words about yourself: where you were born, why you decided to make films, any other works and what’s the next big project?
GW: Born in Newcastle, Australia. Involved in theatre and music since a child – it was a natural progression to sound design and film direction. After completing post-graduate film school in 1995 at Victoria College of the Arts (Melbourne University), I moved to London where I started Speakers' Corner. I lived in London for the entire production phase, moved to New York during the edit phase, and then San Francisco where I completed the project in 2009.
LZ: Will you be joining us at the festival?
GW: I would LOVE to – my wife & I love Astoria & New York – our favorite NY restaurant is Uncle Georges Greek! LIC is fantastic, in fact some of the "historical hanging" sequence was edited around the corner. I'm trying to sort out finances and travel arrangements, but we will do our best!
by Lina Zeldovich
Filmmaker Gavin White explores the past and present of London's Speakers' Corner, dubbed "the single best known place for free speech on the planet." A native Australian, White has just moved from Melbourne to London to work as a producer on "The Media Report", a show for European Business News when he discovered the Speakers" Corner phenomena. "I was broke and discovering London, looking for a film project that wouldn't take me away from my day job," White recalls. One Sunday, while walking through Hyde Park with his sister, he saw a crowd at the Speakers' Corner and was hooked. As it was only held on Sundays and didn't interfere with his work schedule, White explains, "It was the perfect subject for a documentary!" The film takes us through engaging and thought-provoking series of clips ranging from criticism of every political system known to man to a heated debate about the Islamic marriage practice, and from modern gay and lesbian issues to Christianity and atheism. Yet, some speakers stand out of the crowd even in this eclectic sea of humanity. "I preach love," declares a speaker whose platform seems to be completely apolitical and religion-neutral. He shares a few bits of his wisdom. "There was a Swedish girl here last week. She listened to a nutcase on the left, to a psycho on the right, and came to me. And we had an absolutely wonderful evening together!" "You have the right to remain vocal," says the civil right activist and revolutionary, Heiko Khoo, featured in the documentary. A son of a Chinese mother and a German father, he was interviewed about the history of Speakers' Corner as well as taped during his political and cultural debates. Speakers' Corner was frequented by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, C.L.R. James, Ben Tillett, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah and William Morris. Interestingly enough, this symbol of free speech started as a place for public execution – it was home of the notorious Tyburn hanging tree. Later the tree was replaced by triangular-shaped gallows with each beam able to hold eight people at once. The Speakers' Corner project took close to 11 years of White's life, during which he filmed every Sunday for 3-4 years through every season. "It was quite a labor of love," he reveals. "The project languished for a while due to lack of funds, but eventually I convinced enough people to assist and make it a reality." Gavin White currently resides in San Francisco where he started a company that provides text-based media to poor communities around the world using an online platform called Mobilize. He is hoping to join us at the Astoria/LIC Film Festival in October (as it turned out his wife and he love Astoria and their favorite NY restaurant is Uncle George's Greek) – and we are certainly hoping to see him!