‘you are powerful.’
— Aaron Swartz
Today we found out that one of our next projects is to make a documentary based around a single character. I’ve only ever made one documentary before, for 105, and most of my film ideas, so far, are fictional. The only documentary i’ve previously considered is one based in the town of Tyneham, a village deserted during the war and never repopulated, or a documentary researching serial killers. So, i think i need some help with new ideas. I decided to check out what documentaries looked interesting on Amazon Prime and Netflix and the first one that appealed to me was The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. (2014)
Twenty minutes in and I had already fallen in love with Aaron’s shy personality and charismatic enthusiasm for the world wide web, cleverly revealed to us through home video footage of him as a child and talking head interviews with close family and friends. But this was already tinged with sadness as i knew how Aaron’s story was to end and by the closing credits of the documentary i was in tears and riled by the injustice of his untimely death. For this very reason i think this documentary is brilliant. It did an amazing job of painting a very vivid picture of somebody who is no longer with us, managed to make us feel his passions and want to know him. The interviews seemed very personal and the interviewees certainly opened up to Brian Knappenberger, nearly all brought to tears when discussing Aaron’s suicide. But i think this may also be where the problem lies with this documentary, for me anyway. It is, just a little, one sided. Aaron is only ever pictured positively. Surely he had his bad days, anyone who works with perfectionists will tell you they can be difficult at times. The lack of any background or research into depression seems, to me anyway, almost verging on the irresponsible. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, mentions a history of clinical depression yet his family dispute this. Doing a little research, after watching the film, i found many blog posts from Aaron, he titled his blog Raw Thought, that hint at a much darker side that he possibly kept hidden from those closest to him and it certainly backs up his girlfriends description of him as “brittle” or fragile. He also had a history of ulcerative colitis, the disease some think was undiagnosed in Kurt Cobain and contributed to his suicide at his East Seattle home in 1994. Many doctors believe the liver imbalance brought on by ulcerative colitis can lead to bouts of depression, so could this have been a factor in Aaron’s death too.
Ultimately, we will never know the real reason Aaron chose to take his own life and, more than likely, a number of different factors were involved. But i think it is a documentary’s job to offer you the full facts rather than to obscure some and push forward, full force, with others. So when i make my documentary i will try to keep this in mind and reveal as much about my central character as possible, research issues as extensively as possible, within my time frame, and look very carefully at what i choose to edit out in the final cut.
Update 14/12/2015: coming back to this i have to say that actually my problem with this documentary is not that it is weighted in one favour. there are many other documentaries that i have watched that are quite clearly taking a particular bias, Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), for example, does this quite obviously. But throughout he is totally upfront about it and explains why he sympathises with Aileen and his commentary and questioning follow a particular line rather than presenting us with a piece of work that hints towards holding no true bias.