July 19, 2017. Although the “Human Rights Watch Film Festival” ended on June 18, I am still making my way through its many fine and important offerings. The problem that can occur in writing about a film festival that has ended, is that I usually end up critiquing films that are not yet available to the public. Fortunately, the documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” featured in the “Human Rights Watch Film Festival,” is already available on Netflix. Netflix produced it, and more power to them for having done so!
“Nobody Speak” comes at a crucial time in our country’s history. By now everyone has seen the re-purposed video, originally shot several years ago, of Donald Trump tackling someone to the floor as part of a World Wide Wrestling Federation stunt, during a wrestling match. In the version “tweeted” by Trump this week, the CNN logo was superimposed over the face of the person being tackled. Clearly the image symbolized that someone wealthy, and politically connected (Trump), could take down a media organization, a frightening thought, considering Trump’s railings against mainstream media. This short clip, typical of the current level of antagonism toward the press at the highest levels of power, makes “Nobody Speak” even more relevant than it already was.
“Nobody Speak” is a fast paced, engrossing, infuriating and harrowing look at those with pockets deep enough to change, or shut down, a media outlet if they do not like what it is saying. It features a “rogues gallery” of unlikely bed fellows – wrestler Hulk Hogan, Donald Trump, Bubba the Love Sponge (alas, not a misprint), billionaires Peter Thiel and Sheldon Adelson, sex tapes, at least one unethical lawyer, blackmail, ego, hubris, the “National Enquirer,” and online tabloid magazine “Gawker.”
“Nobody Speak” employs a framing device around Hogan’s (real name Terry Bollea) law suit against “Gawker,” over a secretly shot sex tape featuring Hogan, that “Gawker” acquired and put online. “Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, says that his site carries the news stories that the main stream media does not. Whether or not one thinks that a Hulk Hogan sex tape qualifies as news, or what one might think of a site like “Gawker,” is another issue, which, to its credit, “Nobody Speak” does get into.
The point, though, is that Bollea V. Gawker was a very expensive law suit to bring. The story of how the suit was financed and the motivation behind it, combined what happened to “Gawker” as a result, is disturbing and represents a real threat to the First Amendment and the idea of a free and independent press. Could Bollea V. Gawker be the slippery slope that may foretell the future of constraints put on reporting in this country? As media and politics writer Leslie Savan, interviewed in the film, points out, “Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because this case is sleazy and rests on sex that it is not important. This is one of the most important First Amendment cases in American history.” First amendment attorney Floyd Abrams later adds, “The reason to save (“Gawker”) is that we don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible because once we do, it empowers the government to limit speech in a way that ought to be impermissible.”
“Nobody Speak” goes on to give additional examples of how the wealthy and powerful are able to manipulate media outlets and, in so doing, really hold themselves above the truth. Director Brian Knappenberger has crafted a fine documentary with a point of view that is insightful, clear, very well told and thought provoking. For those readers who do not yet have a Netflix membership, this important film is a great reason to join.