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Director of New Aaron Swartz Documentary: "I Was Angry When I Made This Film"

Adam L. Brinklow | July 2, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

San Francisco: Swartz died just 18 months ago. Do you worry that it’s too soon to grapple with the issues in this story?
Brian Knappenberger: No, we needed to get this out there as soon as we could. Documentaries tend to take a long time, but that’s mostly for technical and fundraising reasons. If you have the capacity, as an indie filmmaker, to step it up, then you should. The family is still grieving and they opened up in a way that made me think we should do this now. And now is the moment to talk about these issues, while they’re still relevant. We live in a time of incredible secrecy, and these are matters of life and death. We’ve got to be timely and engaged.

Swartz was bored at Stanford, hated working at Wired, and didn’t fit into Silicon Valley startup culture. Is this a story of culture clash? Or was he just a difficult personality?
Aaron was the sort of activist who wanted to work within the system. He didn’t want to burn the world down. Right now an Internet set of beliefs is clashing with the old world model. Those two worlds are grinding together. Aaron was caught in the gears. It’s a question for our time: Can corporations have a social code and still obey the bottom line?

The film is one-sided, but partly because the other side wouldn’t comment. How hard did you press them?
I wanted to talk to the prosecutors. I want to know what the Justice Department was thinking. MIT agreed to comment, but backed out. I don’t think the government literally killed Aaron, like people tell me on Twitter. I’ll admit I was angry when I made this film, and I don’t think you can hide those passions. I come from a journalistic background. My instinct is to tell the story start to finish, but this film definitely does have a point of view. It’s an upsetting story, and getting to the root of that upset was part of why I made it.

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco.

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