London-based documentarian Ben Lewis is heading to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time with his film “Google and the World Brain,” after making films about poverty, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Baader-Meinhof.
What it’s about: “Google and the World Brain” tracks the Internet conglomerate’s controversial project to upload the world’s written content to its servers.
What the film’s really about: “This film is about what happens when the world’s most austere and fusty of institutions – the library – comes into contact with the world’s most advanced technology – the Internet. It’s about what happens when the oldest technology in the world for disseminating information – the library and the book – comes into contact with the newest, the Internet and the scanner. Above all it is about what happens when you set out to provide people with information for free, without rewarding the information-originators. It is about what might be going wrong with the Internet and how the more freedom you seem to be getting, the more monopolistic the powers that are being built behind the interface.”
How did you come to filmmaking? “I worked at MTV in my twenties, DJed, had a record label, took a ton of E and then somehow managed to grow up around 30, and started making reports, and then long documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4 and the most of the world’s smart public service broadcasters. I have my own small production company but like to work with partners in Europe and further afield. I speak a load of European languages and see myself as a global citizen not a British national. I wrote a book once – a history of communist humour called ‘Hammer and Tickle’. I have also written a lot as an art critic. As a director, I am always finding inspiration from contemporary art for my imagery. Intellectually, I try to make films that capture and investigate the spirit of our times, in all its terrible ambiguity, whether that is communist jokes, the contemporary art bubble or Google Books.”
How did you decide to take on Google? “I searched for the right material for 2 years, eventually focussing on Google Books and other projects to create a universal digital library. So many of the other copyright stories were stale or, if you tackled them, you felt like you were siding with the big entertainment corporations. Plus few people have much sympathy for musicians complaining they aren’t making any money. Other subjects that are critical of the internet seem to be based on speculation about what might happen in ten years time – like most of the privacy stories. But books were different. Everyone knows that people spend years writing books, and there is a widespread belief that writers should have rights over the reproduction of their work. So that was a good starting point. On top of that, Google’s project had been brought to a standstill by an American court, so there was a sense that here were the limits of what the internet could get away with under the mantra ‘we are doing this for the common good.'”
What will people — geeks — take away from your film? “I want [audiences] to think much more critically about the Internet. Giving people information for free is not much good if it means you are taking it from others without paying for it. We need to think of a whole new economy for the Internet that doesn’t allow publishing entities to call themselves search engines and doesn’t confuse indexing with reproducing. At the moment the attitude is not so different from the Westward expansion of America in the nineteenth century. It’s like, oh there’s all this land out here, and only a few people on it. We can do much more with it. Let’s grab it, and own it, and make billions out of it. Sorry, it was your land yesterday but we just decided you didn’t need so much…. My message in the film is ‘Down with technoutopianism!'”
And next? “I am developing films on Apple, the future of privacy, the destruction of science by Stalin, a feature film about a love affair in the Gulag, and a few other ideas and I am always looking for generous financiers or interesting offers…”
Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.