This summer, I found myself passionately talking about Britney Spears’s problematic conservatorship with my family. When my mother – who admittedly does not keep up with pop music nor pop artist – asked me how the Baby One More Time singer was placed under conservatorship and why it had been going on for so long, I struggled to find the right answer: how could I explain the complex and intricate events and processes that forced Britney to give up her freedom when I myself was struggling to fully understand the situation? I wish I could have just logged into Netflix to show her documentary that would explain the legal dispute between Britney and her father far better than I ever could.
Whether you are like me, wanting to know the latest development in Britney’s fight for freedom, or more like a mum who needed more of a “Britney Spears Conservatorship 101” to understand the implications of this complicated legal dispute, Netflix’s new documentary is just what you need. Released on the 28th of September, Britney vs Spears, directed by documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, sees the filmmakers herself, along with journalist Jenny Eliscu, investigate Britney’s right for freedom, aided by exclusive interviews and never-seen-before documents, and attempt to shine a light on a legal dispute that continued for well over a decade and that has been much talked about in the media, as well as by the singer’s fanbase.
In fact, during the past couple of years, the Free Britney movement gained more and more popularity. More than just a trending hashtag on Twitter, #FreeBirtney is a social movement seeking to grant the American singer the basic human rights and freedom she had been denied for more than a decade under the conservatorship Britney Spears had been put under ever since 2008.
Britney vs Spears takes us back precisely to the start of Britney’s conservatorship to analyse and assess the events, people involved, and reasons – mostly financial – behind this legal arrangement. But not only do Erin Carr and Jenny Eliscu helpfully sketch out a complete picture of what happened during the 13 years in which Britney has no access to her own estate nor the money she was making and lost her basic rights, such as using her own car or managing her own affairs or business agreements. More interestingly, they underline how the conservatorship restricting Britney’s freedom was based, as the evidence the filmmakers show us proves, on the singer’s alleged inability to make her own decisions, citing “dementia placement” as the reason behind her conservatorship. However, the filmmakers point out how Britney Spears kept working almost non-stop during most of her conservatorship: how was this possible given the reasons for her conservatorship? Britney vs Spears tries to go to the bottom of this contradiction by interviewing the doctor who reportedly evaluated Britney Spears and gave the reports that kept the conservatorship going. What is perhaps most disturbing about his segment is his reluctance to acknowledge that he ever evaluated, or even met, Britney at all, despite being presented with documents that clearly cite his name.
Throughout the whole documentary, the audience gets this sense that the people directly involved in Britney’s conservatorship still want to keep things as secret as possible. While the documentary provides us with insightful analysis on what the conservatorship legal agreement entails – through its throughout analysis by Tony Chicotel, a conservatorship attorney and with the aid of never-seen-before detailed documents – there is still the feeling throughout the documentary that something is being left unspoken. In fact, no one else who was directly involved in the conservatorship on Jaimie Spear’s side – besides the doctor – is present in the documentary: it seems like they do not want to talk about it or, perhaps, even be associated with this legal case at all. And as we come to the end of the documentary, the viewer is left wondering if this is the real reason behind Jamie asking to be removed as a conservator, especially in light of the media attention the singer’s conservatorship received and Britney’s moving speech in which she clearly states her feelings about her situation, saying that “my dad and everyone involved in this conservatorship should be in jail.”
Nonetheless, Jamie and his legal teams are very present in the documentary: through pictures, archive videos, interviews and, most importantly, Britney’s speech, the audience is able to get an idea of what kind of person Jamie Spears is. His looming presence seems to be a constant in the documentary – as much as it has been for the past 13 years of Britney’s life – and always in the background of the events and interviews featured in the documentary. For example, Felicia Culotta, Britney’s Spears former assistance, refuses to talk about certain things or go into too much detail throughout the documentary, because as Felicia, herself clearly states, “I don’t want to upset them.”
However, what is most striking and new about this documentary is perhaps the portrayal of the pop star herself. Compared to the previous portrayal of Britney by the media, the filmmakers made an important statement in not using the breakdown pictures that seemed to have defined Britney for so long. As the director, herself said in an interview, “we made a conscious choice not to re-victimize her by using those images. […] We don’t need to see that again.” This helps in what ultimately seems to be the mission of the filmmakers: giving Britney her voice, which becomes a reality in the final scene where Britney was finally able to speak out against the conservatorship. The filmmakers give space and importance to her speech as the singer’s own words are shown on the screen as well as heard by the spectator while being juxtaposed with videos of her success, showing Britney performing and the audience cheering for her. In a documentary that shows how Britney’s voice and human rights have been taken from her for more than a decade, the documentary itself is perhaps the only way Britney can make her own voice, her own story, finally heard again – while her father is the one whose voice we don’t hear throughout the documentary.
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