The life of an Internet prodigy |

The life of an Internet prodigy

Alan Maguire, The Park Record


Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger is no stranger to film festival week in Park City or to Internet-centric films. His documentary "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists" debuted two years ago at the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. This year, his newest documentary, "The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," is an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition category.

Aaron Swartz was a famous computer programmer and political activist who fought for individuals’ rights in the 21st century’s increasingly-Internet-dominated world. He was in international headlines a year ago when he committed suicide while he was being prosecuted by the Federal government for downloading and posting online a massive number of academic journal articles. He was reportedly being threatened with decades in prison and massive fines and his suicide raised claims of "prosecutorial overreach."

Knappenberger said the film came about because he just happened to be around a lot of Swartz’s collegaues and friends at the time of his death a year ago.

"I was on a panel with a bunch of people talking about hacktivists," Knappenberger said. "People on the panel knew him personally, including his ex-girlfriend. So I started filming fairly soon. I didn’t really think it was a full feature film at first, but I just kind of started filming and then we went to the memorial and I filmed at the memorial in New York City."

Knappenberger started interviewing Swartz’s family and they talked about "both his early life and this two-year legal nightmare he went through, the kinds of issues it brought up," he said. "I just felt it really needed to be kind of portrayed in film."

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"The Internet’s Own Boy" tells the story of Swartz’s many accomplishments in his relatively short life, but also examines the persecution Swartz endured at the end of his life. "There’re so many elements to [Swartz’s] life that are interesting," Knappenberger said. "Including his early life — we tell the story of his early innovations and insights into the architecture of the Internet. But I think that ultimately the kind of legal nightmare he went through really brought up a lot of shortcomings in the system.

"The idea that our justice system is broken, I hope that comes through," Knappenberger continued. "Ninety-seven percent of the people in our legal system right now plead out – take a plea – and I think it’s absurd to think that 97 percent of the people in our legal system are guilty."

The full extent of Swartz’s efforts and accolades surprised Knappenberger. "In the film, there’s a list of all the organizations and things that he had founded or co-founded and it’s staggering. I mean, the guy is 26 years old and the list of accomplishments is just enormous."

"What I hope people take away from the film," Knappenberger said, "and from [Swartz’s] life is that he seemed totally unafraid to jump into new things and to really actively engage the problems that he saw that the world has. That he may be right or wrong about the solutions, but he certainly didn’t hesitate to apply himself fully and to use the full range of his skills to try to make the world better."

Knappenberger is aware that he might sound overly idealistic about Swartz, but he’s unapologetic. "And I believe that in a kind of genuine sense," he continued, "I think Aaron was genuinely interested in looking at problems, quantifying how you can change them, make them better, quantify how your actions make a difference, and generally being creative with kind of creating real change."

"He was just one of these people that is kind of out front, sort of ahead of everybody else. And the world isn’t often kind to those people," Knappenberger said.

"The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz" is one of 16 titles in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition category and will screen at the following times:

Monday, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at The MARC, Park City

Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 10 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8:30 p.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre, Park City

Friday, Jan. 24, at 6 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City

Saturday, Jan. 25, at 12:45 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City