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SIFF 2012 Exclusive: We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

by Warren Cantrell on May 9, 2012

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Warren Cantrell is at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival seeing as many movies as he can and filing reviews and reports as he goes. 

we-are-legion-movie-posterAt their best, film documentaries responsibly educate their audiences by presenting rounded, objective narratives that lead toward a conclusion illuminating a larger truth.  Even a truly exceptional one (for example, Ken Burns’ recent U.S. Parks documentary) which is admittedly biased towards a certain side of an argument (i.e., that our National Parks should be preserved) takes the time to present counterpoints to the thematic sequence, and demonstrates how any idea, however noble at its inception, can become corrupted.

What’s most surprising about We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, a documentary about the ‘Anonymous’ hacking collective, is its refusal to seriously acknowledge any other side to an argument whose outcome the documentary presents as a foregone conclusion.  The result is a lopsided film that is not only irresponsibly biased towards a specific end, but is also so horribly constructed that any message it might have wanted to convey gets lost in the frantic, unfocused shuffle.

We Are Legion, written and directed by Brian Knappenbergerstarts by presenting one of the “hacktivists” later shown as a defendant in a major case by the U.S. government.  Her name is Mercedes Haefer, a cocky, self-righteous martyr wanna-be that speaks to the documentary’s central thesis: the powers-that-be are trying to suppress “the truth,” and hacker-heroes like Mercedes are successfully fighting the good fight. What the documentary inadvertently proves, however, is that the hacktivist movement is like a rudderless battleship: a big damn boat with huge guns yet no means to get them anywhere with any reliability.  Sure, every once in a while, some convoy is dumb or oblivious enough to pass by the crippled destroyer, and some damage is inflicted, yet the vessel can do little more but spin in circles and take pot-shots at the world. 

we-are-legion-hacktivists-movieThis directionless battleship analogy is an apt one, for the film that celebrates the hacktivists and their struggles also has little structure and a scatter-shot A.D.D. feel to it.  Though We Are Legion begins with a brief history of hacking, and the birth of Internet culture in the 1990s, it quickly shifts into what feels like a VH1 Behind the Music episode about various hacking sub-cultures and projects that leaves the audience largely confused.  This is but the first of several instances where the documentary seems to abandon its own narrative, seemingly for no purpose but expound on a new subject that quickly overtakes the original.

The talking-head interviews are interesting and do give some perspective about the growth of the ‘Anonymous’ movement through 4chan’s B-board, yet a lack of focus and the failure to provide any kind of a counterpoint to the documentary’s arguments cheapen the film as a whole.  Though We Are Legion succeeds at convincing its audience that the ‘Anonymous’ collective has taken up some noble causes and done some arguably good work, the payoff is almost always cheapened by the ham-fisted delivery of the message.  Still, it’s hard not to get behind a spontaneous hacker community that decides neo-Nazi pricks like Hal Turner need to be drummed out of the public spotlight; indeed, the documentary is at its most entertaining when showing the enthusiastic glee flashing behind the eyes of some of the hackers who got to wage a cyber-war against the Chruch of Scientology and PayPal.

we-are-legion-2012-anonymous-documentaryYet this is also where the film’s sharp and slippery slope is to be found.  Without any structure, leadership, or dogmatic stabilization, the ‘Anonymous’ hacktivist collective cannot be trusted or relied upon as a positive force for change. The movie repeatedly endorses patently illegal behavior which got several of the people in this film arrested, and dismisses these actions as forms of social activism.  At one point, perhaps the film’s cheapest, one of the hacktivists who was arrested for his Scientology mischief hauls out his mother to talk to the camera about how her son’s one-year prison sentence was a travesty of justice. She argues that her child has been victimized by the government simply because of a few clicks of his mouse. (He wrote a program that crashed the Scientology main page)

This attitude, one the documentary flaunts proudly throughout its breadth, is an implicit endorsement of illegal activity, something We Are Legion shockingly (and incorrectly) associates with the work of people like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This comes off as not only offensive, but as a blatant distortion of the facts, for while Gandhi and M.L.K. had purpose and clearly defined goals, ‘Anonymous’ has characterized itself by its nebulous agenda. This notion is proven when a hacktivist talking-head unapologetically admits that the ‘Anonymous’ movement began as a means to simply cause mayhem, saying, “Our goal was to wreak as much havoc as possible. Because it was stupid.”

Thus, by the time We Are Legion is finished, one gets the sense that what began as a bunch of computer-savvy cyber-buddies getting cheap thrills eventually evolved into a social movement with good intentions yet no direction. This inevitably devolved into a fiercely vindictive cyber-community with a mouth full of poison and an eye for a cause…any cause. It has defined itself as a social justice movement, but what it has really become is a nameless group of hackers who’ve won a few fights and are now addicted to the rush of big-time mischief.

We Are Legion tries to justify the hacktivist cause by allowing some of the masked, voice-altered interviewees to spout idealistic platitudes about the inherent right to free speech and information sharing.  One of these hacktivists says, “It’s important that we know such stuff, it’s important that we know what our governments do and if they don’t tell us, then somebody has to.”

Really? Why? Why do you deserve to know everything? The documentary never presents an answer to this question, yet perhaps what’s more disturbing is that it never tries to.

A shockingly simplistic take on a movement and group that deserves a far more serious, objective investigation, We Are Legion is a poorly made documentary that lets its opinion on the subject matter cloud its message.  This is a shame, too, for in better hands, this might have been a very engaging look at a spontaneous internet movement, one that represents a 21st century Hobbesian social model that speaks to the human condition vis a vis power, community, and fear.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier May 10, 2012 at 12:47 am

Great review warren you highlighted almost all of my major issues with the anonymous movement that by the sounds of things this movie either tries to ignore or flaunts as virtues. Also in terms of free speech it’s very ironic that they would hide behind that as they have directly infringed upon others freedom of speech. Even if, which everyone should, you think that the Westboro baptist church are reprehensible that does not mean they don’t have the right to free speech and it does not make illegal actions against them ok that’s the double edged sword of free speech.


2 Ryan May 10, 2012 at 4:27 am

Maybe I watched ‘Hackers’ one too many times as a kid, but I loved this film. It reminded me of ‘The King of Kong’, very inspirational. Yes, it is all one sided, but if you root for that side, it is a fun ride.
Has the Director talked about re-cutting the film? When I spoke to him at SXSW he said he was thinking about adding a piece about the recent arrests from March?


3 Warren Cantrell May 10, 2012 at 8:02 am

Yeah, Xavier, sounds like you and I are on the same page. There’s just so much complexity to this movement and the doc. never really took that on: disappointing. And as for ‘Hackers’ as much as I love a young, topless Angelina Jolie, even those fond memories weren’t enough to elevate my opinion of this film. = )


4 Xavier May 10, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Haha I would love to see a similarly one sided documentary that follows the hackers that leak celebrity nude photos. I wonder how much sympathy and support that would be able to garner.


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