Everyone loves a character. Yet, the most dramatic subjects can pose lively challenges for filmmakers crafting their portraits, especially when dealing with bold personalities who challenge the established order.
Such individuals are the focus of several new films that screen during AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs), the American Film Institute’s annual documentary festival, which runs through Sunday. Though not without social relevance, they stand out amid the many issue-themed selections by connecting audiences to gripping personal narratives.
Even when the focus is an activist’s struggle — a staple of nonfiction film — the driving impulse is the emotion at the core of the story. “Aaron Swartz: The Internet’s Own Boy” explores the case of the visionary computer programmer and so-called “hacktivist” who took his own life in 2012.
Only 26, the prodigiously gifted Swartz, among many achievements, had helped create the RSS format, popular Web site Reddit and Creative Commons. Later in his life he increasingly turned his energy to the fight for a free Internet, where all information didn’t have to pass through corporate and government filters, becoming a leading public spokesman for the movement. He also faced 35 years in prison if convicted on federal charges of computer fraud — charges that the film argues were politically motivated harassment.
“I was fired up about the causes Aaron was fighting for,” said director Brian Knappenberger, who previously made the documentary “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” about the underground cyber-community Anonymous. “His personal story really resonated for me as a way into this: the mystery of suicide and what went into that choice. I had lost a friend to suicide about four months before and had become a new father myself. The combination of those things was emotionally poignant for me.”
Knappenberger began shooting the film during a conference a week after Swartz’s death when he met journalist Quinn Norton, Swartz’s former girlfriend.
“It seemed like everybody there had a story about him or knew him,” the filmmaker said. The tragedy made news of a case that Swartz had tried to keep quiet, intending to shield his friends from the prosecution, the filmmaker said. “Not a lot of people were talking about the case or even knew about it,” Knappenberger said. “The prosecution would get very angry with him when he made any public statements about the case.”
His subject was no longer alive, but Knappenberger was able to create a biographical mosaic from all kinds of video material, including the cable news programs or tech conferences that Swartz frequented. The most useful source was Swartz’s family, who gave the filmmaker a trove of old Hi-8 videotapes dating back to his childhood.
“It’s different to be hacking millions of credit card numbers for purely mercenary reasons than the things that Aaron was doing,” said Knappenberger, who added that his requests for comments from officials connected to the prosecution were declined. “Most of his activity was involved with social-justice issues. What part of that behavior were they trying to deter exactly?”
In “Point and Shoot,” another morally committed young man finds himself in trouble with the government. This time, it’s the government of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. The film recounts the incredible true story of how Matthew VanDyke, a mild-mannered kid from Baltimore, landed in solitary confinement for six months after fighting for the Libyan resistance in 2011.
“I am drawn to stories about people who are passionate, and the moment when those passions bang into reality,” said Marshall Curry, a two-time Academy Award nominee, most recently for the 2009 film “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” It’s about a former member of the radical environmental activist group who was jailed in an eco-terrorism case. “I guess that’s just a bone that I can’t stop gnawing on,” Curry said.
VanDyke, who is a producer of the film, gave Curry lots to chew on, supplying him with more than 100 hours of video footage shot during extensive motorcycle trips through North Africa and the Middle East and on the ground fighting with his friends who had become rebels in Libya. Inspired to cultivate his masculinity through far-flung adventures, VanDyke even survives prison and returns to combat — only to realize he has put his humanity at risk.
“It wasn’t going to be a ‘60 Minutes’-style investigative report on Matt, where I tried to win arguments with him on camera,” said Curry, who juxtaposes VanDyke’s often stunning footage with excerpts from an interview filmed in the subject’s apartment. “And it wasn’t going to try to sell him, particularly. It wasn’t even going to perfectly tie things up at the end, like a Hollywood movie.”
“Point and Shoot” won the prize for best documentary at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, whose affiliate not-for-profit Tribeca Film Institute provided grants for the film and another unusual character piece, “Art and Craft,” the story of a compulsive art forger that also screens at AFI Docs.
“Through these films we’re able to look into someone’s world and experience something we’ve never seen before, even though many of them take place in our own backyards,” said Ryan Harrington, the institute’s vice president of artist programs. “These films are continuing to push the form forward.”
Audiences may wonder where their sympathy should lie in “Art and Craft.” Filmmakers Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman introduce a genteel, if quirky, Laurel, Miss., man named Mark Landis, cheerfully engaged in his hobby: creating fake artworks that he donates to regional museums while posing as a philanthropist. Landis has tricked about 60 art institutions during the past three decades, passing off fake Picassos and Watteaus, but has never been charged with a crime.
Accounts of the scams, published in 2008, led the filmmakers to find and approach Landis, whose motives seemed mysterious. “Was he some Robin Hood?” Cullman said. “Or was he getting back at an art world that had rejected him like a failed artist in some way, to shame them? Or was he trying to be a performance artist, to get through the back channels to try and provoke ideas about originality and authorship?”
The film toys with those perceptions, tagging along as Landis perpetrates one of his con jobs. “Most people would think of him in a negative light, but we start there and peel back the layers,” Cullman said. As those layers fall, Landis reveals himself as a lonely man once diagnosed with schizophrenia, looking for human connection, and the sense of accomplishment — however dubious — gained from his acts of deception.
Landis finally meets his match in Matthew Leininger, a (now-former) Cincinnati registrar, who discovers a forgery and becomes obsessed with exposing him. The story then takes a surprise turn.
Mischievous by nature, Landis has nonetheless slowed down his art-world antics as he approaches his 60th birthday. The theatrical release of “Art and Craft” may bring the wider exposure that will make his hobby trickier to pursue. But don’t take anything for granted.
“The hardest thing about doing things for 30 years, especially when you realize it’s not prosecutable, is it’s hard to get the guy to stop,” Cullman said.
AFI Docs runs through Sunday at locations in and around the District. “The Internet’s Own Boy” screens at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at the Naval Heritage Center and 3:45 p.m. Saturday at AFI Silver. “Point and Shoot” screens at 7:15 p.m. Friday at AFI Silver. “Art and Craft” screens at 9 p.m. Friday at the Naval Heritage Center and 1 p.m. Sunday at AFI Silver. For a full list of screenings, visit: afi.com/afidocs.