Barbershop Punk (Georgia C. Archer, Kristin Armfield, 2010): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at AFI FEST 2010 presented by Audi

It seems that every time I review a documentary, I say something like this: “Great subject, everyone   should see it!  If only they hadn’t…”  Sadly, Barbershop Punk is sadly no exception.  In this case the ‘great subject’ is the concept of internet neutrality, and the ‘if only’ is the film maker’s inability to stay on topic.  Time and again the film wanders off track, losing focus on what it is actually about, and the subject is too important to treat in this way.

Net Neutrality is, as the film points out, something that is hard to pin down.  At its most basic it is the idea that information moving across the internet should be treated impartially.  That is, data should not be slowed down or restricted by your internet provider based on where it is coming from.  You pay for your connection; you should be able to do what you want with it. It’s the same as buying a stamp – your letter shouldn’t be treated differently depending on what you write.  Robb Topolski is the man who discovered that the internet had stopped working that way.  When trying to share (legal, out of copyright) barbershop quartet music with others, he found out that Comcast was examining his internet traffic and silently, almost invisibly, preventing him from doing so.  Topolski, with many years of computer network experience behind him, noted the interference and published his findings.  In doing so he unwittingly drew a line in the sand and placed himself on the front line of the battle for a free and open internet.

That battle is, or at least it should be, the center of the film.  It is an important battle for a couple of reasons.  The first of these reasons is the maintenance of the internet as a source of free speech.  We look to countries such as China, with their ‘great firewall’ preventing open communication, with disgust.  Yet, here are companies doing just that.  Now, barbershop music might not be your idea of an important message, but the same methods could be used to prevent political messages, breaking news videos or anything else that someone with control over your internet connection dislikes.  Worse, it could happen without you ever realizing it.  The internet is supposed to be the great equalizer, the platform upon which all can make their stand, say their piece, and be judged by the quality of their content.  That can’t happen if we don’t have net neutrality.

Secondly this is important from a commercial standpoint.  Internet access providers often have their fingers in other pies, such as telephone services and cable TV.  Without network neutrality, there is nothing to stop them crippling your access to products on the internet that they see as competition.  Today that could mean losing access to competitors such as Netflix, Skype or Google Voice.  Who knows what future innovations might be lost without open access to the net.

But I’m getting off topic – see how easy it is!  This is a film review, not a clarion call for net neutrality.  So, if the film should be about net neutrality, where does it veer off the tracks?

The first major detour is concerned with Topolski himself.  During the course of his battle with Comcast, he became seriously ill, and the filmmakers, apparently seeing an opportunity to amp up the film’s emotional quotient, spend a good chunk of time focusing on how this affected him.  Worse still, when he is admitted to hospital, the film attempts to force us to the edge of our seats with a will-he-won’t-he survive moment.  It’d work too, if Topolski wasn’t narrating the film, obviously alive and well.  It’s the pointless and transparent trick, and it saddened me to see it in this film.  It told me that the filmmakers didn’t have faith in the power of their material and felt the need to bolster it with a tawdry bid for the audience’s heart-strings.

Additionally, the film gets the very concept of ‘net-neutrality’ muddled, something it can ill afford to do given how confusing it can be at the best of times.   It confuses censorship by broadcasters (a Perl Jam concert being shown on the web by AT&T had the sound cut during a song that had been reworked into an attack on George Bush) with interference by internet service providers.   The people broadcasting the concert were perfectly within their rights (no matter how foolish it made them look) to edit the content, just as they would be if they were TV broadcasters.  It would only have been a net neutrality issue if an ISP had prevented its customers from watching the concert as it was broadcast, kind of like your cable provider cutting the bits of an HBO special that it decided it didn’t want you to see.  Confusing?  Absolutely, and all the more reason why this documentary should have taken far more care with its content.

Having said all of this, net neutrality is such an important subject that I do believe people should watch this film.  There’s enough of a primer on the subject here to make it worth watching.  The more we come to depend on the internet for our media and, more importantly, our news, the greater the risk that a breach of net-neutrality could have serious, though possibly invisible, consequences.  Barbershop Punk certainly isn’t perfect, but it’ll do until something better comes along.

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