Archive for the Documentary Category

Step

Posted in Dance, Documentary with tags on August 10, 2017 by Mark Hobin

stepSTARS3Director Amanda Lipitz is well aware that the city of Baltimore has an image problem. TV shows like The Wire (2002 – 2008) portray a city troubled by urban blight, underachieving public schools, drug abuse and violent crime. What happened to Freddie Gray didn’t help the city’s reputation. The black American man’s death from spinal injuries while in police custody led to protests and civil unrest. Lipitz’s film was recorded in the months following his passing in April 2015. The film acknowledges this event but then goes on to more uplifting matters.

Step would appear to be a documentary chronicling a step team’s progress toward winning a state competition.  This is probably a good point to explain the title.  Step or step dancing is a style in which the dancer’s entire body is used as a percussive instrument.  A complex set of rhythms and sounds are produced using footsteps, shouts, and hand claps. But Step is just as much a movie about a community as it is about the pupils that go to the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.  BLSYW is a small all-girls, college preparatory, and charter high school. Anyone who believes the raising of a child requires the active involvement of the entire community in order to succeed will be heartened by this account.  These women are surrounded by a lot of encouragement in their lives. Their teachers, counselors, coaches, fellow teammates and families all seem to be there pushing the students forward.

Director Amanda Lipitz’s feature debut follows three likable seniors.  First is Cori Grainger, the senior class valedictorian and hopeful candidate for a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.  Then there’s Tayla Solomon, the daughter of a correctional officer who also happens to be a bit of a helicopter mom.  And last but certainly not least, the step team captain and film’s breakout star, Blessin Giraldo, whose academic struggles threaten her ability to remain on the team.  Her charismatic personality captures the viewer’s attention more than any other.  Now and again, this can feel like her story.  The three young women deal with homework, apply to various colleges and fill out financial aid forms.  The Lethal Ladies step team strives to accomplish two things: finish first in the Bowie State step championship and more importantly, get accepted into college.

That last piece is the unexpected spotlight of this presentation.  Despite the title, Step isn’t really focused on dancing at all.  It’s about things like sustaining a minimum 2.0 GPA and daily class attendance.  The extracurricular activity is merely a reward for maintaining these requirements.  A little more step dancing would’ve been nice actually.  The most electric moments occur when the girls rehearse for the climactic match.  They are extremely talented.  The culminating tournament is an exhilarating exaltation of joy that comes at the end of the production.  Would actually showing more than one full routine in its entirety be too much to ask?  Still, these seniors are driven individuals in all that they do.  They are trying to get into college and it’s that pursuit that motivates this feature.  Teamwork / sisterhood / integrity – Lipitz emphasizes these themes over and over to an audience already open to the charms of these inspirational women.

Step makes a moving documentary.  If this was a fictional story the plot would most charitably be described as predictably safe.  There are few surprises.  Step joins a lofty tradition of dramas about scrappy kids from humble beginnings that find solace in extracurricular activities.  We’ve seen movies that feature basketball, cheerleading, marching band and chess.  Those are the ones that immediately come to mind.  However, the fact that these protagonists actually exist makes the chronicle much more powerful. Amanda Lipitz’ film is polished, positive, and promising.  The developments are designed to make you feel good and it does the job.  In these stories, the plucky heroes usually overcome numerous obstacles to ultimately win the day in an electrifying final showdown to the adulation of their fans.  The idea has been tackled many times.  I’m happy to say it’s just as effective here as it has been in the past.  These girls are champions in more ways than one.

08-03-17

Advertisements

2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts on February 7, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three (animated, live action, documentary) of the the Oscar Nominated Short Film programs available to audiences around the world.

 

Documentary

The documentary short collection was released to theaters on January 29th, a month before the Oscars presentation on February 28th. However its availability is much more limited than the animated and live action categories. Check here to see which of your local theaters is playing them: http://www.shorts.tv/theoscarshorts/theatrical-release/

Three of the features have been acquired by HBO Documentary Films and will also premiere on the cable channel on each of the following dates:

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – March 7, 2016
Body Team 12 – March 14, 2016
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah – May 2, 2016

Chau, Beyond The Lines and Last Day of Freedom are both currently streaming on Netflix.

I’ve ranked the shorts in order of how effective they are in presenting their individual stories. This category always seems to favor depressing subjects. This is a pretty downbeat lot. If you do decide to see these one after another, be sure to go with a loved one so you can hug each other after it’s all over.

__________

A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
PAKISTAN/40MINS/2015
Director & Producer: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
 photo River_zpszuadgevf.jpg
This is a disturbing report concerning “honor killings” in Pakistan. The practice is defined as the homicide of a family member due to a dishonor believed to have been brought upon the family by the victim. The murder is seem as a way to restore reputation back to the family.

Director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a Pakistani filmmaker whose similarly themed documentary short Saving Face won the award in this category in 2012. This is the story of Saba, a 18 year old Pakistani woman who fell in love with a man. They ran away to get married. She is brutally beaten, shot and left for dead by her own father and uncle. However she miraculously manages to survive and bear witness to what happened to her. In a year with some pretty cumbersome titles, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is the most unwieldy, but it’s also the most affecting. (8/10)

 

Last Day of Freedom
USA/32MINS/2015
Directors & Producers: Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman
 photo Last_Day_zpswydermfy.jpg
The most offbeat of all the documentaries, this account uses filmed footage of Bill Babbitt rendered in black and white animation. He remembers his brother Manny, who suffered brain damage from a childhood accident. Later Manny endured two tours of duty in Vietnam which further compounded his mental health issues.

Not sure if it’s the animated style or his compelling words, but I was transfixed by Bill’s recounting his brother’s story. What happens next is dreadful. Bill struggles between doing the right thing and the familial bond with his sibling. Powerful and heartbreaking. (7/10)

 

Chau, Beyond the Lines
USA/VIETNAM/34MINS/2015
Director: Courtney Marsh
 photo Chau_zpscivbtqeg.jpg
This chronicle begins on a sorrowful note as a story regarding a Vietnamese care center for children born with birth defects. The U.S. use of Agent Orange in Vietnam over 40 years ago is the cause. However the sad narrative develops into an inspirational saga about one particular teenager, Chau, who dreams of becoming an artist.

The record follows Chau for several years and we can see him develop his talent over time. It’s a touching (and ultimately uplifting) portrait. (6/10)

 

Body Team 12
LIBERIA/13MINS/2015
Director: David Darg
 photo Body_team_12_zpsoar4xjf0.jpg
The West African nation of Liberia experienced an epidemic of Ebola virus disease in 2014 and 2015. This chronicle focuses on Garmai Sumo, the only female member of a medical team whose job is to prevent the spread of disease by removing the bodies after they have died.

Director David Darg is a humanitarian first responder known for his documentary work in natural disasters and wars. His approach is to present the outbreak from her perspective and the unique challenges she faces when dealing with this work. For example, the deceased cannot be given a grave without a severe risk of contamination. She must convince family members to allow her to take their dearly departed loved ones. Direct contact with the body is dangerous so we see the precautions she and her team take to protect themselves. It’s a window into a very difficult job. (6/10)

[I could see any one of these nominees taking the award, but this is the apparent front-runner.]

 

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
USA/40MINS/2015
Director: Adam Benzine
 photo Shoah_zpswzxqgel1.jpg
Shoah was a landmark 9+ hour documentary covering the Holocaust released in 1985. This explores director Claude Lanzmann’s arduous 12-year endeavor to put together that seminal work.

This reexamines why it is such an important film about the Holocaust. In essence, a 40 minute trailer that persuades the audience to watch the original feature. (6/10)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Posted in Documentary on September 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine photo starrating-4stars.jpgRemember when Steve Jobs swindled Steve Wozniak out of 90% of his share of payment for work they did on Atari’s ‘Breakout’ game?

How about when he denied his own daughter claiming in court documents that he was infertile so fathering a child was impossible for him?

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine will undoubtedly be a wake up call to anyone who readily consumes his fastidiously cultivated public persona. If you worshiped the man as this beatific deity before, then you’re in for a rude awakening. This informational account doesn’t deny the fact he was an esteemed man and a genius, by the way. In fact it firmly cements his brilliance and furthers his immortality. But it’s also a study in contrasts. How a highly regarded man who invented things beloved by millions, did some undeniably horrible things.

The Apple corporation has always maintained a carefully fabricated public image. “Think Different” was a slogan Apple promoted beginning in 1997. They were David going against the indomitable Goliath that was IBM. Apple’s iconic 1984 ad that introduced the “free thinking” Macintosh computer to a legion of mindless zombies held in captive thought by a “Big Brother” like presence. Much lauded American documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) makes a strong case that Apple ultimately became Goliath. From illegal “no-poaching” agreements with other Silicon Valley companies to FoxConn, the Chinese factory where iPhones are assembled to SEC charges over the back-dating of stock options to a raid on Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s home – distressing stories pile up one by one. The abuses are many.

I suppose what one takes away from Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine depends a lot on what you already know about the man. The documentary opens as an investigation that questions the cult of Steve Jobs. If you worship the man now, then you’re not likely to change your opinion even when confronted with some pretty heinous truths. The chronicle even acknowledges this fact. The church of Apple with Steve Jobs as its god, is like a religion for some. He was unrelenting in his quest to create devices that didn’t just reflect you, there WERE you. Director Alex Gibney presents a a meticulously researched film. He assembles some fascinating interviews with early colleagues and friends. These include Steve Wozniak, Daniel Kottke, Bob Belleville, Andy Grignon and Chrisann Brennan. Each one individually provides an intimate albeit partial view. However these as well as many others put together provide a more complete and compelling window into the true nature of the man. Indeed he changed the world for the better. But he left a lot of causalities in his wake.

09-15-15

Best of Enemies

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on August 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Best of Enemies photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe proliferation of political punditry on TV wasn’t always so ubiquitous. Before Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, Rachael Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, there was William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. In the summer of 1968, ABC news needed something to punch up their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. They were dead last in the ratings behind more established news teams on NBC (Chet Huntley & David Brinkley) and CBS (Walter Cronkite). Conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal didn’t just detest each other, they viewed the other as dangerous to the very fabric of American society. This was a culture war and it would played out on a TV screen. It was an audacious attempt to try something different. Millions tuned in. Ratings soared.

If the idea of two erudite minds with diametrically opposed ideologies duking it out in the intellectual arena sounds exciting to you, then see this movie. We are of like mind incidentally. The way this documentary is constructed is kind of brilliant. Directors Robert Gordon (20 Feet from Stardom) and Morgan Neville masterfully orchestrate a drama built around a battle of wills. The vitriolic hate is palpable. I suspect this chronicle is indeed more interesting than the debates themselves. The forums do not appear in their entirety. We are given sound bites, the selection of which no doubt at the discretion of the filmmakers. However the sampling seems fair and both sides are comparably represented by their apparent friends / fans / devotees. Each of which get equal time to expound on the merits of their idol.

Best of Enemies centers on ten televised debates in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal regarding the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Most of the conversation is heated but diplomatic. The climax is fashioned around what is essentially an infamous altercation of name calling between these two loquacious rivals. The discussion centered on freedom of speech in regards to American protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag. Their polite discourse ultimately condensed to a hostile exchange. Gore Vidal baits Buckley with a personal low blow. Buckley strikes back in kind. Buckley and Vidal, these intellectuals with aristocratic bearing, had been reduced to children. According to the documentary, both had a hard time ever forgetting the incident. It was the seed that inspired an article in Esquire that led to a lengthy lawsuit that took years to settle. Individually, these debates had profoundly affected their lives, but more universally it changed the landscape of political punditry. Given the mostly civilized, highbrow rhetoric seen here and what we are now accustomed to, I’d say things have deteriorated considerably.

Amy

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on July 27, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Amy photo starrating-4stars.jpgAn effective documentary sheds light on a subject heretofore seen as an an enigma. For those casually aware, Amy Winehouse was a troubled singer that fell prey to the perils of drugs, drinking and that catch-all term we call the rock & roll lifestyle. To many she was a lamentable figure gifted with the soulful voice of an artist twice her age. Her existence cut short at 27 by her own self destructive behavior. On March 23, 2011 Amy recorded the duet “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennet. 4 months later to the day, she died.

Director Asif Kapadia assembles a portrait of a vocalist we apparently didn’t know at all. The chronicle charts Winehouse’s life from her childhood in Southgate, North London, to her death in 2011. Her hard partying public personae was the subject of talk show hosts’ jokes, but privatively she was a depressed soul needing guidance, someone to say “No” to her vices. Amy’s mother, Cynthia, reveals she was afraid to get tough with her young daughter. Amy told her mom she was “too soft.” Amy’s parents’ divorce when she was 9 is a turning point that negatively affected her behavior. By 13 she was already on antidepressants. Kapadia interviews her friends, family members and the collaborators who knew her. These sound bites play as recorded narration behind home videos. Few had the intimate picture of Winehouse as her first manager, Nick Shymansky. Her early path to fame taped with a cheap video camera. Her raw talent on full display along with her addictions, depression and bulimia. Both sides are recounted through newly assembled interviews, rare photos and unearthed films.

Director Asif Kapadia presents a legend-in-the-making. What impresses is the striking contrast between the simplicity her life before she achieved massive fame and the way it changed afterward. The frail singer dogged by aggressive swarms of paparazzi stalking her with flashbulbs that go off like strobe lights in a disco. Amy was driven by a love of jazz music but also plagued by demons. She was unprepared for the rabid notoriety she archived. By the time of her final concert in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, she was a woman completely unraveled. Unable or unwilling to even perform as she stumbled about the stage in an apparent daze while thousands screamed for her to sing. What ultimately comes through is the tender portrayal of a shy but gifted singer whose outrageous conduct often overshadowed her stunning talent during her lifetime. Friend Tony Bennet compares her to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It might sound like hyperbole, but coming as it does near the end of this documentary, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

07-22-15

The Nightmare

Posted in Documentary with tags on July 7, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Nightmare photo starrating-3stars.jpgHave you ever had the feeling as you were falling asleep or waking up, that you couldn’t move? You’re between sleep and consciousness. You need to wake up but you can’t. You may have even felt like there was a presence in the room, either hovering near your bed — or even sitting on your chest. This is a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. It may occur only once in your life. It may happen many times a year. Figures are unreliable and vary widely but 65 percent of the population may endure it at some point in their lives. Understanding the science behind the experience helps people feel less distressed after an episode. Believing the condition is brought on by the supernatural, on the other hand, makes people feel more unnerved. The latter course is how director Rodney Ascher has decided to approach this subject.

Rodney Ascher is best known for his 2012 documentary Room 237. In it he invited individuals to speculate about hidden meanings found in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. It was a speculative (read far-fetched) work that achieved some notoriety. Now Ascher has returned 3 years later with another work of non-fiction called The Nightmare. This time he has chosen the study of sleep paralysis and focused on 8 people who regularly suffer from the disorder.

There are valid scientific explanations for what happens during sleep paralysis. However The Nightmare chooses to ignore all that and just indulge in fantasy. As a horror flick it’s suitably eerie. After all, the fear is very real for some people. If you’ve ever faced one of these episodes, the film will certainly resonate. In fact, a common side effect in many cases is that victims were able to cause other people in their lives to experience the same condition simply by explaining what they felt. This gives the movie an almost viral like possibility to create genuine dread in the lives of those who watch. If that appeals to you, tune in.

What saves The Nightmare from lack of hard data, is the frightening recreation of the ordeals that the various subjects describe. There is a remarkable similarity to many of the experiences. Visions of shadowy figures, ghosts, demons, cats, even aliens are seen during these attacks. This makes the picture an extremely effective horror tool. However as a documentary on the topic, it lacks much factual information. There are some theories thrown about but no scientific information as to explain why people suffer from these incidents. Sleep paralysis has been around for centuries. An interpretation of a 1781 oil painting by artist Henry Fuseli attests to this. So where are the interviews with doctors who specialize in sleep disorders? Couldn’t they demystify these bizarre episodes? Perhaps that would take away from the movie’s real intent to simply scare the audience. It does a decent job.

07-05-15

Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2015: Documentary (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts on January 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Oscar Shorts 2015ShortsHD™, the Short Movie Channel (www.shorts.tv), celebrates its 10th anniversary of its Oscar shorts release by opening “THE OSCAR® NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2015 in a record 450+ theatres across the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America on Friday January 30, 2015. Some features available On Demand and/or on iTunes.

I must say that the Academy’s documentary branch must be a very despondent group. Without question, the 5 most deeply depressing films in any category this year, and perhaps of any year – at least since I‘ve been watching. The takeaway in all of them is that through great suffering, there is hope. Even the most emotionally devastating short highlights altruistic individuals. The movies are listed in order, starting with my strongest recommendation. People already haunted by a negative outlook on life should proceed with caution.

 

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
USA/40MINS/Director: Ellen Goosenberg Kent
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
While 1% of Americans have served in the military, they account for 20% of all suicides in the U.S.  Enlightening look into a crisis center in upstate New York that focuses on calls from military veterans. We hear one side of the conversation – the admirable men and women working at the facility trying to help. However it’s the things I could infer from their dialogue that rattled me most.  For instance, many callers have weapons in hand.  HBO’s formidable documentary division shines a light on an urgent problem that demands attention. The front-runner in this category and rightfully so. (9/10)

 

Joanna
POLAND/40MINS/Director: Aneta Kopacz
Joanna
Mother Joanna has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and this record details the simple, but treasured moments with her family. Her relationship with her little boy is highlighted where they have slight conversations that draw them closer together. A brief but intimate look into her life. Like Our Curse, it has real humanity but the slender window of time presented has more significance for family members than for general audiences. Where does the story go from here? (6/10)

 

Our Curse
POLAND/27MINS/Director: Tomasz Śliwiński
Our Curse
Probably the hardest one to watch. It’s about Leo, a baby with congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS), also referred to as Ondine’s curse. If you cry just thinking about an infant with tracheostomy tube, you’re going to have problems with this one. It’s a punishing watch. I was tearing up just a couple minutes in, but it highlights hope in the form of two parents: Tomasz (the director) and his wife Magda. I thank God that their little baby is in their hands. I feel like he’s going to be getting good care and a lot of love. This story is far from over though. Future episodes are a must for anyone wanting updates on their difficult journey. (6/10)

 

White Earth
USA/20MINS/Director: J. Christian Jensen
White Earth
North Dakota has seen an influx of people seeking work due to an oil boom. This meandering take is mostly filtered through the eyes of children. An immigrant mother is also featured. The chronicle means well, but this account of how the quality of human life has deteriorated in this town, is so vague. Bleak just for the sake of being bleak. (5/10)

 

The Reaper (La Parka)
MEXICO/29MINS/Director: Gabriel Serra Argüello
The Reaper (La Parka)
A man who works in a slaughterhouse reflects on his connection with death. Efrain seems like a thoughtful fellow but what we remember is lots of artistic cinematography of cows being killed, bloody carcasses and racks of meat being processed. Yuck! Turned my stomach. (1/10)

Citizenfour

Posted in Documentary on January 15, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Citizenfour  photo starrating-3stars.jpgI suppose one must make a distinction between what Edward Snowden did and how this documentary presents his contribution to society. There’s no question what Snowden achieved took a lot of courage. The repercussions of his actions will be felt for years to come. He is wholly unassuming in one sense, someone about which you might pass on the street and not think twice. He’s an extremely erudite, well spoken bespectacled gentleman, a geek to some perhaps, but a young, slim, handsome man nonetheless, with a girlfriend for whom he is worried. He‘s a whistleblower if you will, a concerned member of the community who leaked classified intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA) where he worked that gave damning evidence regarding their illegal surveillance techniques on the American public. The effects of which are still being discussed today.

Back in January 2013, documentarian Laura Poitras was contacted via email by a stranger using the pseudonym Citizenfour. The unknown associate offered inside knowledge about extensive privacy abuses by the NSA against its own citizens in the U.S. The man was Edward Snowden, an American computer professional, who wanted to tell his story. He met with Poitras and investigative journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who was the Guardian intelligence correspondent. Regardless of your opinion of Snowden, he seemingly has no ulterior motive other than to convey information he genuinely felt must be revealed in order to benefit humanity. Edward Snowden’s choice to come forward and simply discuss what he knows forms the basis of this chronicle.

Citizenfour is an insider’s look into a groundbreaking event. What Poitras records is Edward Snowden’s anxiety. The fear of an ordinary man that is exposing what he must in a Hong Kong hotel room. At one point a fire-alarm test in the building has him utterly paranoid that the authorities are coming to get him. The document is filmed over 8 days detailing Snowden’s discussions with journalists Greenwald and MacAskill. Occasionally we break away and witness U.S. officials in court give contradictory testimony. They assert no such surveillance is being done, despite warnings to the contrary. These governmental practices are supposedly necessary in a post 9/11 world – the unfortunate result of terrorist activity. Citizenfour is a rather claustrophobically set in a hotel room. As a revolutionary moment in history that chronicles the life-changing decision of a brave man, it‘s an important work that demands to be seen. In that sense, this feature is indispensable. As a work of entertainment, however, it leaves something to be desired.

12-11-14

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Posted in Biography, Crime, Documentary with tags on July 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz photo starrating-4stars.jpgBrian Knappenberger directs this fascinating documentary about Aaron Swartz, a computer programming prodigy turned internet activist. A hacker not out for personal gain but rather to promote free access to information. The Internet’s Own Boy is a sympathetic portrait. The narrative is fashioned as the loss of a great mind as a consequence of the U.S. government’s overzealous pursuit of a transgressor. A persecution that was disproportional to the seriousness of his actual crime. JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) is a digital library featuring back issues of academic journals. Aaron was guilty of bulk-downloading a substantial portion of JSTOR’s records using the MIT computer network. Most of the data was available via a paid subscription. Some of the older data was obtainable by anyone for no charge. As the trial approached, Aaron was facing multiple felony charges that could have put him in federal prison. As the case mounted against him, he faced a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine, if convicted.

The Internet’s Own Boy does a great job at presenting a potentially confusing topic in a straightforward and level headed manner. First the account lays out the case for the truly brilliant mind this young man possessed. In family videos we see him as a child reading at an ability far beyond his years. At 12 he created The Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia not unlike Wikipedia. In his teens he was instrumental in the creation of the RSS feed, the public domain watchdog group Creative Commons, and the formation of the social news site Reddit. The documentary makes the argument that he was a key player in the defeat of The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents warned that the proposed legislation’s reach extended much further than mere copyright law. The federal government could block whole internet domains if they saw fit. This, they argued, would ultimately threaten first amendment rights on the Internet. You will marvel at his extraordinarily gifted mind.

Then the chronicle goes into the details of his crime. Swartz wasn’t interested in leaking classified documents. He was for the uninhibited dissemination of knowledge that could benefit people. The story acknowledges that infiltrating JSTOR’s database wasn’t completely legal. What he planned to do with his massive procurement of 5 million articles is not specifically known. Yet his misdeed ended there. It’s alleged by the prosecution that he intended to release the downloads to the public on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Even his friends and colleagues accept that this wasn’t such a far-fetched supposition. One only need read his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” to know his opinion toward free and open information.

Aaron Swartz stood for a free and democratic Internet. He was guilty of downloading 5 million scholarly texts from the JSTOR database. However since this material wasn’t of a sensitive nature, nor did he plan to financially gain from the acquisition, the infraction seems negligible at best.  Unfortunately none of the antagonists agreed to appear on camera.  If there’s a villain here it’s the U.S. attorney’s office and specially the chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Heymann. He doesn’t fare too well at all. His absence doesn’t help him, but it’s hard to say whether it would have served him if he had showed up to defend his questionable motives.  Even hallowed university MIT comes under fire for its failure to speak up in Aaron’s defense despite their supposed commitment to open access.  The end result is a one-sided but emotionally compelling view. It will make you angry but it will also make you profoundly sad. You will mourn this young man who, in the aftermath of the events detailed here, ultimately took his own life.