Sunday, November 02, 2014

"Blackbird": a high school boy goes to jail when his "fiction" story on the Internet is seen as a threat to his school

The Canadian drama “Blackbird”, by Jason Buxton, tests the boundaries where free speech and community safety – particularly in public schools – come into conflict, although it morphs more into a drama about personal reconciliation than political controversy. 
The basic setup is this:  In a small town, high school junior Sean Randall (Connor Jessup) becomes to the object of bullying over conflict over a girl Deanna (Alexia Fast) with the more aggressive teen Trevor (Alex Ozerov).  Sean is a somewhat gentle, articulate kid whose eyelid rings and goth attire (and back tattoo) seem misleading.  His English teacher encourages him to express his feelings through writing, so he pens a story about a school shooting rampage by a distressed boy.  He also posts it online.  In the meantime, his divorced dad, who has custody, is a gun enthusiast and hunts regularly.  When police find the story online and “put two and two together” they presume he is threatening the town with a shooting rampage and arrest him,

The film starts with Sean in his room, and police knocking at the door.  We learn the setup through flashbacks.  In one particular episode, Sean had been reluctant when dad (Michael Buie) tried to teach him to shoot, but he made photos of the bowels of the kill and posted that online, fueling future bullying, which starts out in a silly enough fashion with a cafeteria food fight. 

The courts are particularly unsympathetic, believing that Sean is truly a threat to the school and the community, and the lawyer encourages a guilty plea, totally uninterested in the “truth”, which involved in large part the school’s unwillingness to deal with bullying, as well as the obvious question as to whether the fiction piece constitutes a threat. The father gets prosecuted and fined for unlawful storage of his own weapons.  It's suitable that in one scene Sean is reading a book by Kafka. 
The producer notes on do call this a “death threat online” and I think the film skirts a very critical issue with social media and self-published literature.  Let me explore this a bit.  Did the fiction story use the real high school as the setting?  Did it use the real kids’ names or present the characters as obviously identifiable as the kids in the school?  If the teacher made an assignment, would the piece have some value as literature anyway, apart from the threat?  Were it a commercial script, it would not be perceived as a threat because then it would have been written for a different “purpose”.  Something like this happened when I was substitute teaching with my own script (written in late 2004) called “The Sub”.  I have embedded this script in a larger feature screenplay as briefly explained here (“Do Ask, Do Tell: Conscripted”), link. In the middle of that treatment (right after the inserted school picture) I link to another very detailed explanation (as best as my own investigation and forensics online can show) of what I think really happened with this incident in October 2005.  But school systems are very unwilling to accept “gratuitous” speech online (even off campus) as legitimate if they perceive any threat at all. 

There are indeed cases where rampage shooters or domestic terrorists have left "manifestos" to be read such as those of Eliot Rodger and Ted Kaczynski (the "Unabomber").  I don't recall that previous online posting was an issue (although Kaczynski goaded major newspapers into publishing his "manifesto" in the days that the Web was just beginning.  But police have prosecuted people for apparent threats made in social media, such as the case of Justin Carter in Texas, where it seems that the interpretation of his Facebook comment was a bit of a stretch.  More recently, a girl was accused of plotting an attack near Philadelphia (Radnor High School) based on what she wrote online, here,  And Zale Thompson, perpetrator of the NYC hatchet attack and killed by police, also had written a nihilistic "manifesto", ABC story.  

The second half of Buxton’s film focuses more on Sean’s life in and out of the juvenile detention center, with various legal maneuvers.   A lot of times, the camera focuses on the barrenness of the surroundings in jail, as well as the crude interactions among the boys, whom the authorities seem uninterested in rehabilitating.  The boys often toss around the term "Columbine" as an epithet. Toward the end, Sean learns some empathy with his tormenter Trevor, as if forgiveness at a personal level is what is needed. 
Connor is almost too likeable as the character.  Imdb lists Connor Jessup also as a writer, producer and director before age 20.  It would be good to find some of this work.  I could imagine Richard Harmon having been cast as Sean. 

The film is shot in Nova Scotia and the script refers to “provincial courts”.  But it also names towns in Maine, and one sign gives a speed limit in miles rather than kilometers. It's a little shocking to see a progressive country like Canada treat the bullying and free speech issues so indifferently.  

The official site is here from Breaking Glass Pictures.  It recently became available on Amazon and iTunes, with three extra minutes (there was a DVD in 2012).  I don’t recall a theatrical release, although it could logically play at the West End in Washington, or perhaps the new Angelika Pop Up at Union Market (or a similar theater in Soho in New York).  The title has been used for a few other films, including one about a gay African American teen (by Patrik Ian-Polk) that I can’t find yet. 

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Peggy’s Cove Harbor.  I visited Nova Scotia once in October 1978. Second picture is mine, from Texas.  

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