SXSW: Festival Clicks with Tech Pics

Napster doc, 'Computer Chess' cross interactive-film line

Of all the things that set South by Southwest apart from other sprocket operas, most significant is how it combines a world-class film festival with equally dynamic music and interactive media events. For years, the film programmers tied film and music together by booking a generous sidebar of rock docs. But who wants to watch the equivalent techie pics?

Turns out, there are a handful of pretty good interactive-focused options in the lineup this year, ranging from as-it-happens current-events lesson “TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard” to Andrew Bujalski’s eccentric nerd-history snapshot “Computer Chess.” Though plans fell through at the last minute, SXSW film fest director Janet Pierson had been hoping to bring Stephen Hawking to attend the premiere of the new doc, “Hawking.” It says a lot about the SXSW demographic that a theoretical physicist likely would have stirred more excitement among attendees than, say, Joseph Gordon Levitt (whose terrific directorial debut, “Don Jon,” deals with the way the Internet — and specifically online porn — affects modern relationships).

The genius of SXSW’s synergistic approach is that interactive-friendly events don’t end with film screenings, but tie in to panels and discussions with personalities like Shawn Fanning, a key figure in the Napster doc “Downloaded.” Speaking of downloading, as of this week, anyone can purchase the Pirate Bay doc on iTunes — and before that, savvy file-sharing samurais could find ways to get “TPB AFK” for free, since director Simon Klose posted the link on the controversial Bit Torrent site shortly just as the film premiered in Berlin last month.

Sadly, it’s not a very good film, mostly spent observing the core team of programmers (minus Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, who was off doing drugs in Cambodia) try to dig their way out of a massive legal battle. Considering all the brains it takes to set up and operate a site like the Pirate Bay, it’s astonishing how inarticulate these slobs are in person. They show up for court appearances in track suits and T-shirts, and rather than using the platform to spread their ideology, they instead reveal such selfish motives as working on the Pirate Bay simply because they wanted to be involved with the biggest website of all time.

One has the sense of watching a bunch of delinquent high school hobbyists run a disorganized club — but perhaps that’s the point, since the film dispels the myth that anyone’s getting rich running, as one talking head puts it, “a business based on other people committing crimes.” Faced with multi-million-dollar penalties, Frederik Neij does the math to show how little the site actually earns (selling four porn ads for $500 a week, his calculated revenue comes to roughly $104,000 a year).

Where the Pirate Bay guys are essentially glorified hackers, Napster was a different situation entirely, as portrayed in Alex Winter’s far more entertaining — and considerably more informative — “Downloaded” (directed by the same Alex Winter who starred opposite Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). Blending fresh interviews with Fanning, Sean Parker and the key players with terrific archival footage and a wide range of insights from artists, investors and future-minded thinkers, Winter helpfully puts the Napster story in the bigger context of the late-’90s file-sharing revolution. While the Napster innovators were trying to find a way to monetize their breakthrough, the world was changing, record labels were crying bloody murder and legal precedent was being set.

“This means the Internet is criminalized,” Neij says upon receiving the verdict against Pirate Bay in “TPB AFK.” But they can hardly claim to be the first such case in history. Napster, on the other hand, really did change the world — and “Downloaded” helpfully reminds that industries would do well to learn from its lesson, focusing on innovation and how to adapt to their consumers’ rapidly changing behavior before the next free-content breakthrough cripples them the way it did the record business.

It may not feel like it now, but the World Wide Web really is our generation’s version of the wild, wild West, and docs like these come about as close as it gets to the myth-building pulp novels that transformed Billy the Kid, Jesse James and their ilk into folk heroes. Seems only fitting that a festival as plugged-in as SXSW should be the place to get their stories out.

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