‘The Internet’s Own Boy’: Brian Knappenberger chronicles tragedy of web activist Aaron Swartz
When Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013, he was facing a possible 35-year prison sentence and a million-dollar fine. Federal prosecutors had targeted him for using an MIT computer network to download 4.7 million documents from the JSTOR database.
Documentarian Brian Knappenberger was attending a digital activist conference when the news came out. Within a week he started shooting interviews, unsure at first if he had enough material for a feature movie. It wasn't until he spoke to Swartz's father Brian that he decided to continue The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. The Participant Media release opens in theaters on June 27.
"What struck me about the story was that it had been going on for two years, almost to the day, before Aaron killed himself," Knappenberger says. "And yet it didn't get a lot of press. When I spoke with his father, a very poignant conversation, I felt there was more about Aaron to tell."
A computer prodigy, Swartz won a trip to MIT when he was 13 for a website he put together. At 16, he began working on Creative Commons, a nonprofit copyright licensing organization. He was one of the creators of Reddit, and built the architecture for OpenLibrary.org.
Knappenberger's previous film, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, made the director a familiar figure in the Internet activist community, and helped him procure interviews with Lawrence Lessig, a copyright-reform advocate who teaches at Harvard; Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz's girlfriend at the time of his death; and Swartz's family.
The director also interviewed Quinn Norton, a freelance writer who revealed possibly damaging testimony about Swartz after she was given immunity by prosecutors. The clearly grief-stricken Norton provides one of key scenes in the documentary.
"I had known Quinn for a while," Knappenberger says, speaking in a midtown Manhattan publicity office. "I did an early interview with her about a week after Aaron died, but I could sense there was a lot more to her story. She stopped reporting on Anonymous and other Hacktivist groups, so I understood that she had a deeper role that she wasn't willing to talk about right away. When she wrote a kind of mea culpa piece in The Atlantic, I said to her, 'We have to talk, you owe a deeper explanation.'"
Although many hacktivists were outraged at Norton's actions, in his documentary Knappenberger takes the time to point out how vulnerable she was. "She was concerned about getting her computer taken away, and she had a lot of sources to protect," he explains. "She was a single mom, and they were threatening her income. I don't know what I would have done in that situation."
Norton told prosecutors about the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a piece Swartz had written in 2008 arguing that information should be freely available. Explaining the intricacies of the Manifesto, as well as Swartz's spectacular success as a computer coder, was one of the many challenges facing Knappenberger.
"This is a dense film," he admits. "There are a lot of facts to get across. Also, I don't want to talk to the converted, I didn't make this for hackers or coders. I think this is a story of our time."
Knappenberger had little besides his interviews and archival footage to work from. He credits his experience on television shows like "Frontline," "National Geographic Discovery" and Bloomberg's "Game Changers" for a visual style he describes as "being in the moment, in action that's happening. You have to reveal information in a natural way that makes sense."
Prior to editing, Knappenberger pores over transcripts of his interviews, fashioning from them a written script that makes the nuts-and-bolts of post-production faster and easier.
Even so, Knappenberger and his crew had to put together a rough cut and then a more polished version in a blistering schedule in order to meet Sundance Film Festival deadlines.
In 2003, Knappenberger directed a "Frontline" piece about the Afghan war that had some exposure on the festival circuit. He concentrated on television work for the next ten years, until We Are Legion.
"The difference between the deals we were offered in the beginning—terrible ones like $15,000 for all rights, ownership essentially—and deals today is significant. Back then, you didn't have Kickstarter, you didn't have iTunes and Netflix streaming, you couldn't say, 'Forget it, I'll do it myself, it's on me to find an audience.'"
Knappenberger obtained roughly a third of the budget for The Internet's Own Boy from Kickstarter. (His campaign started the same day actor Zach Braff started one for Wish I Was Here; in a gesture of solidarity, Braff contributed enough to be credited as executive producer on Knappenberger's documentary.)
"As an independent documentary filmmaker, you have to work fast, and keep your budgets low," Knappenberger argues. "I don't see how you can spend millions of dollars and seven or eight years completing a film. If you keep your budgets down, you have these new ways of getting your work out. Kickstarter-funded, direct access—it's really a way to keep control over your work."
The director admits that one studio at Sundance offered him a significant sum for American television rights. Instead, he held out for a deal with Participant that would give him the right to license a release through Creative Commons.
"Cory Doctorow, who's interviewed in the movie, does something similar with his science-fiction novels. He sells them through Amazon, but he also has a 'share' version on the Creative Commons website.
"So for The Internet's Own Boy, you'll be able to watch it in a theatre, buy it through online portals like iTunes, but there's also a version through Vimeo that will have a DMR-free Creative Commons license. I think you have to embrace all these formats to reach the widest audience."
Knappenberger's next project, which will again be about hacktivists, will incorporate this new model of filmmaking: small budgets, tight shooting schedules, new modes of distribution. But the director is also considering a larger-scale documentary about the Afghan war.
"We took a crew in near the very beginning of the war, and that 'Frontline' footage reverts back to me after ten years," he says. "I'm thinking of updating the piece, see what happened to the characters. I don't think the story of that war has been told yet, and it's an epic story, a story of our times. You know, if you're in your early 30s in America, you've been in war your entire adult life."