To usher in the release of CitizenFour, let hacktivists, internet crusaders and underage models hijack your head
CitizenFour (2014), the impactful third instalment of Laura Poitras’ post-9/11 documentary series takes an unmatched look at Edward Snowden’s mission to uncover America’s internet surveillance programmes – with insane insider access. Poitras was the only person allowed to track Snowden’s whistleblowing, resulting in a tense and twitchy look at historically significant events. You’ll feel so part of the action you’ll spend half the film trying not to fall off your seat, and the other half massaging your brain with your knuckles. To mark the release, we’ve decided to gather ten equally intense docs. Below you’ll read about internet pioneers, old and new, Siberian supermodels, Ugandan homophobes, Egyptian revolutionaries, transphobic killers and more real world moments that’ll hijack your head.
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Internet capitalism
If you haven’t heard of internet soothsayer Josh Harris, it’s because he had broadband ideas in a dial-up age. With ‘ahead of his time’ an understatement, he basically invented YouTube and Big Brother before either thing was a thing, and predicted – very succinctly, very clearly – the social media age. This was back in the 1990s, when the idea of you and your nan reporting every detail of your lives online was considered the rantings of a lunatic. And Harris gave good lunatic – a belligerent and brilliant man, he was half tech-genius/half performance artist, with a terrifying clown alter ego he called Luvvy.
Using his .com wealth to set-up an underground society he called QUIET: We Live In Public, Harris created a community of 100 handpicked people, locked away but free to do whatever they wanted – drugs, booze, each other – all under the watchful eyes of almost infinite webcams. Those cameras caught disturbing psychological experiments, unrestricted gunfire and more, giving the art experiment the air of a doomsday cult, with Harris the charismatic leader. Bleak and genuinely scary moments litter this mesmerising portrayal of a fascinating man.
TPB AFK: THE PIRATE BAY AWAY FROM KEYBOARD (2013)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Internet piracy
Covering the seemingly doomed court case against the creators of Pirate Bay (they made/run the website that allows people to upload and download illegal files), which, to stretch the pirate metaphor, is a bit like suing ship-builders for providing a means of transport for Black Beard and his mates, TPB AFK is an extremely entertaining look at modern internet culture.
With unprecedented access, we follow the darkly humorous trio behind TPB, whose open disdain for the court and its prosecutors’ accusations is, frankly, hilarious. Watching them bat away legal questions with fierce intelligence is strangely addictive. But by far the biggest shock of the whole thing is that these three relatively broken individuals (a drunk, a drug addict and someone clearly morally torn by the suggestion that right-wing funds power the site), could bring Hollywood to its knees, without much organisation – or even an office.
THE SQUARE (2013)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Egyptian revolution
Truly electrifying examination of the Egyptian revolution, going shoulder-to-shoulder with the young people unified into an uprising by social media and social video sites, inspiring each other to topple a regime. But that initial victory is only the start of the story, with military occupancy, political manipulations by the Muslim Brotherhood and personal betrayals escalating peaceful demonstrations into bloodbaths.
Often shockingly violent, but with an overriding message of the power of hope and anger in the face of oppression, this is a very important film. The decision to follow a handful of key characters as they navigate their way across years of protest is a smart one, adding depth and emotion to a staggering story.
GOD LOVES UGANDA (2013)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Homophobia
Missionaries invading Africa to spread the word of Christ, encouraging the persecution of gay people and directly targeting orphans for conversion – sounds like a historical doc, right? Wrong. Today’s fundamental Christians are more dedicated than ever to turning third-world countries to their cause, literally believing they’re a conduit to conquering the world. God Loves Uganda (2013) follows those missionaries from America to Africa, as they take their message to the people.
Full of stark images – a scene in which lines of frenzied Ugandan preachers bellow god’s word via speakers, megaphones and strained shouts to non-plussed passengers imprisoned in traffic jams is particularly chilling – God Loves Uganda (2013) slowly narrows its focus from the influence of the missionaries’ presence, to the effect of their message – possible legislation making homosexuality illegal; punishable by life in prison. The bill was put into law earlier this year, making this documentary an essential examination of how conservative views can change a country.
VALENTINE ROAD (2013)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Gun violence/transphobia
Valentine Road (2013), on the surface, is clinical reportage, covering the fatal shooting of a young transsexual named Larry King. The boy was sitting in front of a computer, safe at school, when a classmate suddenly stood and shot him point-blank in the head. Road covers the event, speaking to witnesses, teachers and the family of the shooter, and even the shooter himself, incorporating CCTV footage from police interviews to include his voice. But as the documentary continues, it’s clear that this is more than a court film, with extremely disturbing transphobic views surfacing from the most surprising places. It’s hard to take anything positive from such a depressing case, but an end-text coda covering what happened to Larry’s donated heart after his death might just break yours.
WE ARE LEGION (2012)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Hacktivism
Self-proclaimed ‘final boss of the internet’ Anonymous has shaken the foundations of power with little more than a laptop, a wireless connection and a mask re-appropriated from a comic-book movie about a really big Guy Fawkes fan. We Are Legion (2012) tracks the rise of the online activists, as they target Neo Nazis, the Church Of Scientology and beyond, taking in some of their biggest victories. With contributions from masked and unmasked Anonymous members alike, this is a compelling exploration of the growth of one of the most significant protest groups in the world.
GIRL MODEL (2011)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Labour standards in the modelling industry
We open in Siberia, on a large gathering of androgynous young women shivering in swimwear in a cavernous hall. A piano-heavy score featuring sinister strings weaves with the sound of their chatter. No, this isn’t the beginning of a Dario Argento slasher film, but the earliest moments of an investigative look at model-scouting – which, at times, feels as uncomfortable and bleak as a sex-trafficking exposé. The film follows thirteen year-old Nadya; self-described ‘gray mouse, an ordinary country girl’, as she’s spotted by scouts tracking prepubescent-looking talent for the Japanese market, observing her as she’s swallowed whole by the (dark side of the) industry. That comparison to Argento isn’t throwaway, Girl Model (2011) plays out like a horror film, with an almost constant atmosphere of dread.
We love fashion, but it’s an industry with dark corners that need to be avoided. In that spirit, Girl Model (2011) should be shown in schools as a warning to anyone who aspires to follow in the footsteps of Cara Delevingne. For every success story, there’s a hundred Nadyas, slowly being surrounded by creeps. Controversy raged post-release, with Nadya – still under contract – angry about her portrayal in the film (despite not having seen it).
HIP HOP: BEYOND BEATS & RHYMES (2006)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Misogyny/representations of masculinity in hip hop
Not the most impressively shot documentary on this list – it mainly consists of static talking heads – but in terms of the issues it covers, and the access it achieves to address them, it’s as essential. Anti-sexism experts, transgender rap fans, cultural critics, hip-hop scholars and the rappers themselves weigh in on how modern hip hop represents men, and distorts their attitudes to women, gay culture, money, violence and power. Featuring disturbing footage of women being physically assaulted and openly objectified by fans at a major hip hop event, unashamed homophobic views from mainstream rap stars, and the revelation that corporations are more in favour of negative lyrical content, it’ll leave your brain vibrating with shock.
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: The war on drugs
Since 1971, America’s war on drugs has cost more than $1 trillion, resulting in over 45 million arrests – leading to a higher incarceration rate than Russia and China. Meanwhile, drug use is unchanged. The House I Live In (2012) deconstructs the war on drugs, examining its evolution from a health issue to a law issue, uncovering the sinister undertones in place since the inception of legislation. One particularly stark sequence traces the creation of drug laws as a method of targeting immigrants in the 1800s: opium laws to imprison Chinese people, cocaine laws for black people, marijuana laws for Mexican people. Cut to the modern day: when a judge in robes is interviewed in court arguing that crack cocaine is too severely policed in America, it’s pretty obvious something has to change. But with one startling argument comparing modern American prisons to concentration camps for the black and white poor, it’s clear that change isn’t coming any time soon.
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY (2014)
THE POLITICAL ISSUE: Freedom of information
The Internet’s Own Boy (2014) is the story of Aaron Swartz, a child computer prodigy who helped develop RSS and relaunch Reddit into one of the biggest sites on the Internet, before turning his back on profit to pursue his passion for free information – but its subject is never at arms-length; he always feels like someone you know, someone you’re close to, even. Which is what makes this film’s turning point – the fatal consequences of Swartz’s radical insistence that knowledge should be shared – all the more harrowing when it hits. We won’t say much more, we’ll just insist you watch this film.