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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.
By Washingtonian Staff
A still from China Heavyweight. Image courtesy of Silverdocs.
Comments () | Published June 15, 2012

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 RevisionariesDon 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

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