Hot Docs reviews – Part #1

I’m seeing 4 films at this year’s festival (much lower than previous years!). Here’s my reviews of what I saw last weekend – and I have two more coming up this weekend.

Aaron Swartz - photo credit Hot Docs site.

Aaron Swartz – photo credit Hot Docs site.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (website) 4.5/5 stars

Aaron Swartz’s death was huge news last year. I had never heard his name until that point, and reading around after the news broke I was surprised that I hadn’t – Swartz was an instrumental figure in internet circles and Hacktivism, and his influence was far and wide. This doco primes the viewer with a pretty decent look at his history – from a young age he was a bright and articulate kid, and became enthusiastic about programming during his childhood – which led to him taking part in major projects from his early teens (he was one of the authors of  RSS at 14! FOURTEEN.) His intelligence and natural abilities meant he enrolled in college early and it brought him into a world of budding possibilities for what could be created for the use of the internet. It was fascinating to see how much he’d taken part in during his very short life – co-creating Reddit,  Creative Commons licensing  and much more – in addition to becoming heavily involved in internet activism and a leader in the anti-SOPA movement.

Swartz moved from creating products to working on creating positive experiences; for everyone to be able to use the internet and access information freely. He was dogged in his pursuit of this, and unfortunately it contributed to his demise – but by no fault of his own. He created a script that could access the journal archive JSTOR and download articles – he set up a computer at MIT to do this, and was found out and arrested for it. Mind you, there was no sensitive/non-public information stolen, he was not seeking to profit from this – he just wanted the information to be free. The charges brought against him and the surveillance by the FBI wore him down. Eventually after charges were revised to include many felonies and he faced 35 years in prison, he took his own life.

This documentary really set up his story in a powerful way – it would be hard to doubt that, despite his idiosyncrasies and personal difficulties at times, he was well loved by those he interacted with. Colleagues, friends, lovers – everyone admired his spirit and the work he did. (I encourage you to read what Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow wrote about him after his death.) Everyone knew that all Swartz wanted was to make the world a better and fairer place. It was heartwrenching to see overblown and malicious criminal charges – undisputed by MIT (their calling for charges to be lessened or dropped could have ended everything) – bring someone who was so bright with such potential down into such a dark place. It was an emotional documentary at the end, but also overall a fascinating look into Swartz’s life. The interviews and clips used were edited together expertly to tell his story with a very passionate tone; my only gripe is that it could have been more tightly edited to bring it down to 1.5 hours or less. I hope that those he influenced can take up his work and fight for the causes he was working for. I encourage everyone who is interested in technology, the internet and the freedom of information to see this documentary.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks – photo credit Hot Docs

The Way of All Flesh 3 / 5 stars

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Henrietta Lacks, I would encourage you to try and track this doco down – it may be online somewhere, as it was made in 1997, and it’s just under an hour long. (I hadn’t realized it was part of a retrospective when I got my ticket, but it was still very interesting!). Putting aside the age of the interviews and quality of the film, the information presented was very interesting. Henrietta Lacks died in hospital in 1951 – before her death, cancerous cells were removed from her cervix and cultivated in a lab (without her family’s knowledge or permission). This cell line became known as HeLa and have been used in labs for cell biology ever since. The way her cells transformed knowledge about cell biology and cancer was instrumental – but certainly the ethics behind how they were procured were not sound; this doc also briefly covers racial issues tied to the use of her cells without permission. Her family was finally notified and Henrietta received recognition, but far too late. A very interesting case of medical ethics – one would wonder what turn medical history might have taken had her cells not be sampled and kept alive to this day. Ultimately, I wish this documentary had delved deeper – but I suppose the timing of interviews etc in the late 90s was right considering when the cells were taken and when the research was taking place.


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