“Give Me Liberty” is a thoughtful and ambitious film about the real and often messy lives that real people live. Based on the experiences of Russia-born director Kirill Mikhanovsky, “Give Me Liberty” is a creative exploration of immigrants making it in America and of how marginalized groups overlap in a community. Mikhanovsky presented the film alongside partner and writer Alice Austen at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25.
“Give Me Liberty” shows a chaotic day in the life of Vic, a van driver for people with disabilities, who is always 10 minutes away from his next destination. The day quickly spirals out of control as Vic, played by acting newbie Chris Galust, deals with setback after setback as he tries to pick up his passengers and transport his Russian neighbors to a funeral, all while avoiding roadblocks and protesters. Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer also has her acting debut in “Give Me Liberty” playing Tracy, a young black woman with ALS who is forced to go with the flow of this bizarre day.
The film takes place in Milwaukee and comes with a cast almost entirely comprised of non-actors and Milwaukee natives. The choice to use locals as the base for this cast helps to highlight the vibe of the city. The cast’s composition also allowed Mikhanovsky to tell the intertwining stories of marginalized communities. Due to the nature of filming on a bus, the filmmakers used a handheld camera for a large portion of the film. Rather than distracting from the film, it adds to the rough and real tone of the rest of the story. Mikhanovsky stated at Sundance, “The camera is at the surface of the action, not the other way around.” The choice to use handheld cameras allowed them to follow the action and to capture the hectic nature of various mishaps in the story.
Music plays an important role in the film with Vic having a (somewhat clichéd) interest in collecting vinyl. However, not all the music was chosen for the film — some of the music just came to the film naturally. One scene, in particular, is set at a talent show at the Eisenhower Center — a community center for adults with mental and developmental disabilities. This scene wasn’t written. It was raw, and as a result, the people participating chose the songs that they wanted to prepare. It was up to Mikhanovsky and Austen to receive permission to use the songs after the fact. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is one of the songs performed in the talent show and “Give Me Liberty” is the first film Springsteen gave permission to license the song. Mikhanovsky told viewers at Sundance how Springsteen gave the “okay” after being invited to view the film first.
An almost dark comedy, “Give Me Liberty” is almost over stimulating to the point of stress or anxiety, especially in the beginning. As the day begins to spin out of control, there are always two different conversations happening at once, people yelling, singing and playing the accordion. Combined with quick cuts and seemingly out-of-place scenes, the sensory overload is unsettling with little relief throughout the two-hour film. While the film is a tad too long, the creative shots and sustained stress are innovative and the reason “Give Me Liberty” was presented in Sundance’s NEXT series, a category for forward-thinking filmmakers.