Silverdocs Reviews: “We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” “China Heavyweight,” and “The Revisionaries”

Our take on what’s showing at Silverdocs this year.
A still from China Heavyweight. Image courtesy of Silverdocs.
A still from China Heavyweight. Image courtesy of Silverdocs.


We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Playing
Thursday, June 21, at 6 PM and Saturday, June 23, at 10:45 PM

To the news-consuming public, “Anonymous” is a
dangerous group of Internet hotheads who unleash online attacks against
any
company or government that pisses them off. Back in 2010, the
loose-knit group made headlines for disabling the websites of
PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa in retaliation for the companies’
decision to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks. But in

Brian Knappenberger’s fascinating new documentary,
We are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, members of Anonymous aren’t cyber bullies; they’re heroes.

Through interviews with Anonymous members and observers, Knappenberger—who previously worked for Discovery,
National Geographic, and PBS/Frontline—plots the group’s unlikely ascent from an
obscure Internet chat room to the lead story on the evening news. Along
the way,
Knappenberger explores the divisions that form within the
community: Some members of Anonymous are just in it for the laughs,
while others see a higher-minded calling—like going to war with
the Church of Scientology after it tried to prevent a video
of
Tom Cruise discussing Scientology from being widely disseminated on the Internet.

Knappenberger presents a much more flattering portrait
of Anonymous than you’d find in the mainstream media. In the film,
Anonymous members are garden-variety Internet jokesters who
only learn to harness and detonate their power when governments
and other institutions—like the Church of Scientology—take
steps to limit the freedom of the Internet. In
We Are Legion, Anonymous members aren’t the ones bullying; they’re sick and tired of being bullied themselves.

It’s a fascinating approach to the subject. And even
viewers who rage when they can’t log into their credit card accounts
may find themselves pulling for Knappenberger’s hackers as they
unleash denial-of-service attacks and leak personal information
onto the Internet. To be sure, Knappenberger does explore the
dangers of a having a group of fearless computer hackers roaming
around the Internet, but his heart is clearly with Anonymous.

Still, it’s just that perspective—which is largely
absent from the popular media—that makes the film so compelling.
Anonymous
is far too decentralized and complex to be understood in a
sound bite. And although some may take issue with Knappenberger’s
often one-sided portrayal,
We Are Legion does a great deal to further our
understanding of Anonymous. The film is a must see for anyone interested
in Internet technology
or current events, or simply struggling to figure out what
Anonymous is all about.

—LUKE MULLINS


China Heavyweight

Playing Wednesday, June 20, at 10 PM, and Thursday, June 21, at 11:30 AM

Director
Steve James’s 1994 documentary,
Hoop Dreams, charted the lives of two inner-city high school students as they attempt to hoist themselves out of poverty by landing college
basketball scholarships. In his latest film,
China Heavyweight, award-winning director
Yung Chang applies many of the same themes and storytelling techniques to the little-known world of adolescent boxing in China.

Once banned by the government, boxing has emerged as a
way for young Chinese boys and girls to escape their poor farmlands
and make a better life for themselves. Government officials
scout the countryside for young talent, enroll top prospects in
boxing programs, and work to mold their students into
champions. By spending a year inside a training academy, Chang provides
a unique window into the hardships young Chinese boxers must
endure—cramped living conditions, grueling workouts—if they’re
to succeed at this brutal sport.

As a work of pure storytelling,
China Heavyweight misses the mark. The pace is slow, and the narrative Chang builds around his main characters—coach
Qi Moxiang and two of his boxers—isn’t
compelling enough to drive casual moviegoers through the film. Part of
this may have to do with
language barriers; part may have to do with the
less-than-engaging personalities of the two young boxers Chang features.

However, the documentary succeeds in producing a rich
portrait of an insular world few viewers are familiar with. The
cinematography
is at times beautiful, and the film captures touching,
unguarded moments between the boxers, their peers, and their families.

Although the subject is boxing,
China Heavyweight will appeal more to Asian history and culture buffs than sports fans. The young boxers serve as a metaphor for the tension
between traditional Chinese values and more modern pursuits.

“Here are these kids dealing with filio-Confucian
tradition and wanting to break away to explore their dreams,” Chang said
in an interview with
Canada.com. “And for me, that presented
an interesting parallel with the modern China.”

­—LUKE MULLINS


The Revisionaries

Playing Friday, June 22, at 6 PM, and Saturday, June 23, at 8:15 PM

They say a story is only as good as its villain. These
days, we want one who’s single-minded yet complex, powerful yet
vulnerable.

The Revisionaries
Don McLeroy, fundamentalist Christian and member of the Texas State Board of Education, fits the bill.

This isn’t to say
Scott Thurman’s documentary takes a explicit
partisan approach and vilifies McLeroy. But the film’s general audience
will probably find
it hard to agree with the man who alters state textbook
requirements to ensure they discredit evolution and make no mention
of the liberal-minded Thomas Jefferson.

The immense size of the Texas textbook market
generally means that what goes for the state goes for the nation. And so
begins
the sharp political maneuvering on McLeroy’s education board,
the stakes being nothing short of the education of an entire
generation of schoolchildren.

Despite McLeroy’s insistence that the earth is only
6,000 years old and humans once lived side by side with dinosaurs, the
filmmakers don’t subject him to mockery or demonization like
many less-scrupulous ones might. Instead we get a sympathetic
portrayal of a man who lays out his Christian beliefs earnestly
and doesn’t try to hide behind some ulterior political agenda.
He’s just a mild-mannered dentist doing what he thinks is best.

The bulk of scenes are set in the board’s chambers
during hearings and votes. We get a fascinating glimpse of the
behind-the-scenes
support wrangling, the ambiguities of policy wording to further
a cause, and the enormous ramifications of what’s at stake.
When it comes to take the final votes, the cameras are right
there, delivering a taut, well-edited political drama.

Through it all is McLeroy, our de facto main
character, both protagonist and antagonist. The film is superb in making
this
not just a political story, but a human one, as well,
particularly in a scene where McLeroy and one of his opponents, a
Southern
Methodist University professor named
Ron Wetherington, sit down for a simple lunch and a philosophical chat about truth, and what it means to believe in something.

Here in DC, politics can boil down to a stark numbers
games where the prize is power. But The Revisionaries brilliantly
showcases
a different side of that debate, one that may rest solely on
the convictions of a small-time Sunday school teacher. It’s represented
perfectly in the final minutes of the film, as McLeroy awaits
his reelection results not surrounded by a team of pollsters,
analysts, and campaign managers, but alone in a dim room at
home, staring longingly into his computer screen.

—MICHAEL GAYNOR

Most Popular

More from Things to Do