Hot Docs ’14: Personal loss drove Brian Knappenberger’s Aaron Swartz doc

The director (pictured) of Hot Docs' opening night film told a Toronto audience that a friend's suicide, coupled with a meeting with Swartz's father, prompted him to pursue the documentary, which may not have happened otherwise.
April 25, 2014

Brian Knappenberger (pictured), director of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, told a Hot Docs Film Festival audience that a friend’s suicide and a meeting with Swartz’s father prompted him to pursue the documentary, which may not have happened otherwise.

The director engaged in a Q&A following the opening night film on Internet activist and open-access hacker Swartz, which kicked off the Toronto doc festival Thursday (April 24) evening.

“Three or four years ago, I’m not sure I would have taken this on,” he admitted, before adding that he had lost a friend to suicide four months before Swartz’s own suicide, and had recently become a father himself. Coupled with a meeting with Swartz’s dad, Knappenberger said the doc soon began to take shape.

Knappenberger revealed that the film will follow a dual model, with a U.S. theatrical release by Participant Media on June 27, as well as a Vimeo release through a partial Creative Commons license that will enable viewers to copy and share the film in any medium or format,and adapt or remix the material.

Knappenberger credited journalist and activist Cory Doctorow – who is interviewed in The Internet’s Own Boy and uses Creative Commons licenses for digital versions of his books - for inspiring him to follow the model.

When asked about the topical issue of Net Neutrality, he said that he is considering making a short PSA on the subject to accompany the release of The Internet’s Own Boy.

Discussing how he came to work on the film, Knappenberger said that shortly after releasing his 2012 doc We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists, he was on a symposium panel with Swartz’s girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and began filming the event and the outpouring of support around Swartz.

The director answered a number of questions on the role of media in covering access issues, saying: “We live in a world where the press is broken… We need a kind of adversarial press; it’s something that is desperately needed.”

Knappenberger also discussed the Internet as a tool for social change, adding that after two documentaries on hacking culture, he recognizes the necessary role played by some hackers.

“They’re engaged in a relentless pursuit of truth, and we need the truth,” he said, specifying a need for transparency in Americans’ relationship with the government.

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