Brian Knappenberger, the director of the Anonymous documentary We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, was at the Social Computing Symposium conference at New York University when he heard that Aaron Swartz had passed away. As word began to spread that the young programmer and internet activist had killed himself, Knappenberger realized he was surrounded by people – Gabriella Coleman and Clay Shirky, amongst others – who knew Swartz well. So as a filmmaker, he did what came naturally; he grabbed a camera.
“I felt this sense of loss as we started talking about him and telling stories,” Knappenberger said in an interview with Wired. “I tend to always travel with a camera of some sort, so I just started talking to people.” Today, he launched a Kickstarter to raise $75,000 to fund his feature documentary about Swartz, one of the more magnetic and enigmatic figures in recent internet history. (Check out some of Knappenberger’s early footage in the exclusive clip above.)
The documentary, currently titled The Internet’s Own Boy, will look not just look at the life of the programmer and activist, but at the culture he helped build. At the time Swartz took his own life in January, he was facing federal fraud and hacking charges in Boston for allegedly downloaded millions of academic articles from JSTOR using MIT’s network. But even though only 26 years old at the time of his death, Swartz had become not only a champion of open access to information, but someone who had a hand in everything from RSS to the birth of Creative Commons to the founding of the SOPA/PIPA-fighting Demand Progress. He also founded Infogami, which became part of Reddit. [Disclosure: Reddit, like Wired, is owned by Condé Nast.]
“I feel a real responsibility – his story has touched so many people that I feel like I really want to this justice,” Knappenberger said. “It’s touched people that didn’t really know him all over the world so, [the film] is about exploring why that is, why people knew about him and why he inspires people. … It’s not a memorial of him, either. It’s an investigative approach into what happened and who he was.”
In addition to speaking with Swartz’s family and loved ones – many of whom have already been interviewed – Knappenberger also plans to speak with officials at MIT, which has been reviewing what happened in the JSTOR case since the programmer’s death. Keeping in line with Swartz’s vision, the director said he plans to release the film under a Creative Commons license so that others can build off of what he produces, much like Cory Doctorow does with his books. Because the documentary is being Kickstarter funded instead of funded by a studio it can be released in a variety of ways from DRM-free digital downloads to film festival runs to college screenings.
Even though the film, which Knappenberger would like to complete by the end of the year, will mark the second feature documentary the director has done about internet activists, he said Swartz’s is a much different story than the tale of Anonymous. Not only was his identity well known, Swartz was also very different in that he wanted to work with the system, instead of outside of it.
“Creating We Are Legion, as you can imagine, I met a lot of people who were just done with the system – just ready to throw it out,” Knappenberger said. “Aaron wasn’t one of those people. He wanted to hack it in the best sense. Use his tools to make it better. He didn’t fit into that same mold.”