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Sundance Curiosities: Forget the Environment. The Internet is the Hot-Button Issue for Documentaries This Year at Sundance

Sundance Curiosities: Forget the Environment. The Internet is the Hot-Button Issue for Documentaries This Year at Sundance

Our annual Sundance Curiosities column takes a look at various
movies and filmmakers from the upcoming Park City festival worthy of
anticipation. This year, the column is being written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, who will also review films during the festival.

Contrary to what Spike Jonze’s “Her” may have you believe, our love affair with technology isn’t all wistful melancholy and Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. There’s a sobering underside to our increasingly plugged-in reality, which, following that awards darling’s theatrical release, constitutes an unexpected focal point at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Three films treat the underbelly of our attachment to the Internet on this year’s documentary program, telling separate but equally ominous parables of virtual extremism from just the last few years. You’ll find in-depth explorations of clicky news curiosities like a 2010 case of criminally obsessive avatar gaming, and the overblown prosecution that resulted in Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s death in January. Trending, too, is “internet addiction,” a brand-new clinical diagnosis in China.

Senior Programmer David Courier, who culled the documentary lineup, said his team chose the films individually and only noticed their unifying theme after selections. But to Courier, depicting the internet is a natural evolution for the documentary form. “It’s almost a logical next wave,” he said. “Nothing has impacted documentaries more than the internet. Nothing has empowered documentary filmmakers more than the internet.” Courier added, “But there is this other side, too. Anything that goes to an extreme can have consequences.”

The concentration of hot-button internet stories updates a lineup usually dominated by cautionary environmental tales, a theme still in full force last year, with premieres like “Blackfish” and “A River Changes Course.” Has contemporary anxiety shifted focus? Even with the notable absence of environmental docs, this year’s documentaries sustain the festival’s signature concern with manmade disasters. Past eco-friendly Sundance darlings “Crude” (2009) and “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) revealed willful ignorance in national law, which is still at issue here. In full Sundance form, the films foreground questions of government restricting, or failing to restrict as the case may be, open access to the alternate universe now available on demand in one’s jeans pocket.

The U.S. government comes under fire in director Brian Knappenberger’s U.S. Documentary Competition selection “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” Fresh off of exploring the rebel class of computer whizzes with 2012’s “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” Knappenburger takes on the internet’s modern martyr. The film will chart the Reddit co-founder’s rise from wunderkind coder to the leading activist for open access to knowledge on the Web, up until he was painted a criminal by the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. (As its Kickstarter preview pithily notes, that legislation was originally rolled out as a response to the fictional Global Thermonuclear War waged by Matthew Broderick’s wisecracking hacker in 1984’s “War Games.”) Part biography, part legislative critique, “Boy” fits comfortably into the “issue film” trend in Park City as it advocates for Aaron’s Law Act, an amendment to the CFAA.

In China, where “internet addiction” has been labeled a clinical disorder, officials admit their most web-addled youths to rehabilitative clinics. Like the Beijing military-style boot camp that is the subject of Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s World Cinema Competition entry “Web Junkie.” The film anchors its take in the larger story of choppy intergenerational undercurrents that emerge in the three separate therapy treatments. With patients who “feel more connected to disassociated voices in cyberspace than to their families,” the austere Center becomes a microcosm of Internet age growing pains in China as it prepares to change reins.

If these measures seem harsh for a clinical diagnosis that, defined by a mere six hours of uninterrupted internet activity a day for three months, could apply to many of us, the consequences sure suggest all the symptoms of a mass health hazard. “Love Child,” from Sundance alum Valerie Veatch (“Me at the Zoo”), revisits one harrowing news item from South Korea in 2010, a case in which a malnourished baby girl died at home as her parents ventured out for 12-hour gaming binges at a local gaming arcade. Their preferred game, Prius, allowed them to nurture a virtual child (named, ominously, “Anima”), and even bring it back from the dead, instead.

Rather than treat the story as an anomalous incident, the film explains the tragedy by way of South Korea’s tech leadership and its effect on the lifestyles of the populace. The audience gets a taste of Prius’ seductive capabilities as well, with creepy footage from the game interspersed throughout the narrative. Which brings to mind an interesting conflict: just how different is being sucked into a movie from playing a virtual game? Documentary’s become more self-aware of its tools in the past few years — just look at this year’s strong metacommentary, from Sarah Polley’s “The Stories We Tell” to Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” Could this be the beginning of a new trend blurring the lines between the virtual world of the Net, and that of the cinema?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, the festival is doing a little of that itself. Just check out the recently unveiled e-waitlist, which promises to cut down on that trademark Park City experience of freezing yourself stiff to have a chance at getting into your film of choice.

Courier offered this: “Nobody here is condemning the internet unto itself. What’s being condemned, if anything, is probably extremism.”

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