I watched as Gavin White, an independent filmmaker, explored the past and present of London’s Speakers' Corner, dubbed “the single best known place for free speech on the planet,” and wondered why we don’t have one in Central Park in New York. I had walked by the Speakers' Corner in London, and more than once. While the concept probably wouldn’t survive in the stricter, more prohibitive cultures, the Gotham city should’ve been able to handle it. For now, I bow to the Brits.
White’s documentary takes us through an engaging and thought-provoking series of clips shot at Speakers' Corner over a few years, 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. As the film progresses, we learn that 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. When a convicted person was about to be hung, he was allowed to speak to the crowd, which often gathered hundreds of people, and say anything he wanted. For the first time in his life, he was about to be truly heard.
A native Australian, White had 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 recalled.
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 explained, “It was the perfect subject for a documentary!”
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 runs a company that provides text-based media to poor communities around the world using an online platform called Mobilize. His documentary Speaker’s Corner was recently screened at the Astoria/Long Island City Film Festival in New York.