by Annie Goldson
What sparked your interest in the Kim Dotcom case?
It is difficult to explain the impact that Kim Dotcom has had in Aotearoa New Zealand which is a very small country: from our shock at the high profile, militarized raid of 2012; through to his court battles, his run at politics, spats with our then Prime Minister, the revelations of illegal spying; to some of the public events he has launched with great furore and fanfare.
At the time of the raid I didn’t realize he was involved with Megaupload, which I was unaware of as a site, but as the Dotcom train continued I realized that the story of the man and the multiple legal cases were pretty intriguing. And Caught in the Web had ingredients most of my films have had – a sufficient basis in Australia/NZ to qualify for funding here and to reach domestic audiences, but international/universal aspects as the ‘largest copyright case ever’ that, hopefully, would allow it to find audiences elsewhere.
As I continued with my research and filming, three issues underlying the Dotcom story emerged and stood out for me: how we consume media, entertainment and knowledge today; privacy and surveillance in the internet age; and national sovereignty, for example, copyright law, trade agreements, military/policing/intelligence alliances and so forth.
What were your aims in making the doc?
Speaking broadly, to produce brainfood. My aims were both to entertain and engage audiences, but also to canvas the issues I mention above. I think we need to consider these deeply and they, in many ways, exceed Kim Dotcom himself in their importance. I wanted also to try to produce a balanced documentary, given the heat and light that surrounds the issues, doing neither a hatchet job on, nor a hagiography of, Dotcom. In this way, the film is at the journalistic end of the documentary scale.
When you got to interview him he was fully co-operative or a bit wary or defensive?
Kim Dotcom is obviously a savvy individual, and understood that the film needed to be independent and be seen to be independent too. I think it took him sometime to decide whether having a documentary made would be in his interest – which of course is something that every documentary subject considers. Every time a documentary is made, there is always a negotiation, a power exchange between maker and subject.
There have always been filmmakers interested in telling Dotcom’s story, and it was my good fortune in some ways that he was stuck here in our Pacific ‘paradise’. We began filming in 2014. We knew that once we received funding, which was prior to our interviewing Dotcom, that we would need to complete the film regardless, with or without him. Dotcom is in fact quite a reclusive and private individual despite the colourful image he projects. It did take us a couple of years to secure an interview but by the time we finally gained his consent, which was about two-thirds of the way through the edit, he was co-operative and was pretty frank in answering all my questions. We also managed after some time to negotiate access to his personal archive which was important to the film.
Do you think the Kim Dotcom case has changed attitudes to piracy?
No, I don’t think so. The extreme positions on both sides – ‘information wants to be free’ and ‘you can’t compete with free: all infringement is theft’ – remain entrenched with or without the Dotcom case.
Dotcom remains a hero in the eyes of some, a villain in others. Since the initial raid however what has changed is technology and delivery services. Megaupload now feels somewhat older, one of the first commercial cloud services that have proliferated since, forming a crowded market. Gradually, more music and films are becoming more available at affordable prices, at least in populations in the relatively wealthy countries.
Broadly how does the film address the issue of supporting the creative sector in the internet era?
It doesn’t – although that is precisely the ‘question that is begged’ by the film as it one that is vital. I too am a creative, so personally it is an important question to me, but I see myself as a storyteller and a critical thinker, not an entrepreneur or a futurist policy maker.
I think piracy can be reduced to minimal levels by making titles available at the same time worldwide and at levels that are affordable. But this does require a rethink of the business models that exist, at least in film.
What were the reactions at SXSW?
Very positive, good audiences and great reviews, especially from the tech sector and some influential websites: most people commented on how balanced the film was, its clear story telling methods, and how it showed Kim Dotcom as a person rather than a self- and media-managed stereotype.
For example, Ars Technica said: “Goldson has produced that rare thing: a documentary about a controversial web personality that is balanced and informative” and Rolling Stone, “Whether you think he is a hero or a heel, you’re bound to leave the film with your preconceptions shattered.”
What is he doing now while he appeals against the extradition ruling?
As is pretty evident to all, Kim Dotcom is a fighter and is determined to battle this process through to its bitter end. The last finding of the NZ High Court, although it upheld the lower Court finding on the accused men’s eligibility for extradition, contained some legal contradictions. I imagine Dotcom’s legal team will be wrangling with these as the case heads to the Court of Appeal.
Meanwhile, it is over five years now since the raid. There are three others individuals, too, of course still here in Aotearoa New Zealand, two of whom had come for a brief holiday in 2012 to see Dotcom on his birthday. Meanwhile, Dotcom is in the process of launching Megaupload 2.0: I’m not sure of its technical parameters and how it differs from other cloud services, but users have to pay in Bitcoin.
As it does, life goes on. Dotcom and his ex-wife Mona are co-parenting the five children which keeps them busy and two of the other men facing extradition have families too. Most commentators believe it will be at least two years before the extradition process is finally decided as it is likely to go to our Supreme Court. We chose to finish the film after the first extradition hearing as that seemed like a ‘natural end’ after which we gave an up-to-date summary in intertitles. But of course the story has a long distance still to run.
Professor Annie Goldson’s feature documentary Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web premiered at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. A Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland, she has been producing and directing documentaries and docudramas for 20 years in the US and New Zealand. Her credits include Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl, Sheilas: 28 Years On, Pacific Solution: From Afghanistan to Aotearoa and Elgar’s Engima.