Monday, June 25, 2012

"We Are Legion" tells the story of Anonymous


I attended the very late (10:45 PM) Saturday night showing of “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists”, directed by Brian Knappenberger,  in the AFI Silver’s Roundhouse, not quite full.  Silverdocs had presented the director for QA at an earlier screening, which had sold out immediately when the festival went online.

The documentary lets the hackers, mostly appealing and articulate young adults (a few are women) tell the story in close-ups.   One of the guys could lose his cigarette, but most had the looks that would have made them eye candy in discos.  The group (often called “Anonymous”) coalesced informally, rather like a pop-up thunderstorm (pun).   The idea of anonymity as a right (as part of a protest strategy) was paramount; the film discusses the informal adoption of the mask seen in the WB film “V for Vendetta” (2006, dir. James McTeigue).

The film opens with Mercedes Renee Haefer describing the morning that the FBI banged on her door. Quickly, the film goes to its main narrative. The interview subjects include Gregg Housh, Wired writers Ryan Singel and Stephen Levy,  Priscilla Grim, and anthropologist Gabriella Coleman.  Early, the film tells the story of Chris Poole and his “4Chan” imageboard website (which McAfee Site Advisor marks as “unsafe” because of links to Rapidshare).  Soon the narrative goes head on into the battle with the Church of Scientology, which this group wanted to take down just to prove something.  Naturally, this would lead to cease-and-desist notices and lawsuits, but, because threats apparently were involved, it also led to FBI raids.  One very nice young man in Nebraska told the story of the visit to his parents’ house; his one-year in prison, and the one year of supervised probation where he is not allowed to touch a computer.  He says, as the camera dawdles on his long face and hairy wrists, “making threats, that’s not me”.   

The documentary moves into the role of Anonymous in the Arab Spring protests, and finally the interaction with Wikileaks and Julian Assange, which the government (under both Bush and Obama) has pursued aggressively, particularly with the prosecution of Bradley Manning, the (“gay”) soldier accused of lifting many of the documents.  This matter has already been covered extensively in some television documentaries, particularly PBS Frontline.  The film also gets into Anonymous’s support of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement last fall.   I have a review of  the PBS Frontline “Wikisecrets” on the TV blog July 15, 2011.  Friends even of mine have said that the leaks could compromise the safety of civilian contacts in combat areas like Afghanistan.  Of course, one can twist this debate into one about (the U.S. military) being present overseas at all as part of the “War on Terror”.  But certainly the vast majority of leaked information (including a notorious 40 minute film of “friendly fire” against civilians in Iraq, embedded on my “Films on Major Threats to Freedom” blog April 7, 2010), while embarrassing, has little actual national security value.

Here, the ethical principles of the group reached a fork (or “Southfork”, maybe).  The film presents the hack of a PBS Frontlines twitter feed by a subgroup called “LutzSec.”   Here, some hackers were trying to suppress journalism of others, whereas generally others in the group said that the press should be left alone because it is a major firewall against authoritarianism and tyranny.  (Maybe some people, particularly on the political Left, claim that corporate media outlets, even PBS, are part of the "establishment"; I used to hear this a lot in the 1970s, even from my own first gay "trick" in NYC who ranted all evening in my apartment about "the abuse of the media.") In fact, the entire “hactivist” movement had come about in large part in response to the “surveillance” society that came about after 9/11, and had also developed  as a way for “little people” who had not competed (successfully) for power  in a formal way to “be somebody” after all.  I can really relate to the latter argument. Wired has a story on this matter by Kevin Poulsen, May 30, 2011, here

Toward the end, the film covers litigation against George Hotz, who, as a teenager in New Jersey (along with a younger brother) had invented an iPhone unlock, discussed on my “Network Neutrality” blog Aug. 26, 2007. Kids who grow up with computers sometimes develop unbelievable levels of employable skill even before high school. At the very end, it returns to the arrest of Haefer. 

Technically, the film is quite pleasing. Some of the animated sequences have a “3-D without glasses” effect achieved by manipulating relative movement of objects in frames.

This is a gripping, compelling, even monumental documentary. It tells a real story and maintains objectivity, airing all sides.  But individually, the "characters" remain likable. 


The film was an official selection at SXSW in Austin, TX.  It was suggested that it should have been presented in Slamdance (the underground of Sundance).  This was the first of two films I saw that dealt with grass roots protest; the other was about ACT UP (yesterday's second review). 

The link for the film is here.

Pictures (mine, not from film): Outside the AFI Theater in Silver Spring (Sat. PM); Occupy protests in Washington DC.  Note the image of Bradley Manning.

See also "WikiRebels", reviewed here Dec. 12, 2010. 

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