A Pirate’s Life, by Aaron Pinkston
The way films are made and consumed has changed drastically and continuously. It has never been easier to make a movie or see a movie — there are multiple websites whose only goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to stream certain movies. Similarly, with ever-increasing technological capabilities, films are being seen without permission under federal copyright laws. If you frequent Battleship Pretension, you undoubtedly know all about The Pirate Bay and similar peer-to-peer file sharing sites. You probably know much more about it than I do, in fact. But no matter your knowledge or general interest, a worthwhile documentary recently sprung up. TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay – Away From Keyboard represents our current cinema climate. It’s another film in the growing list to have been funded through Kickstarter. It also is taking the releasing route of many independent films — premiering on the festival circuit (in this case, the Berlin International Film Festival) and allowing consumers to stream the film online before it’s available in theaters. What sets TPB AFK apart from its independent film kin, however, is that it has released it for you to watch right now, for free, aptly ready to download on the file site it covers, as well as Youtube. And since they are making it so easy for you to see it, why don’t you?
If you are wanting to learn about the Pirate Bay peer-to-peer file sharing or to engage in a political debate about copyright law, TPB AFK won’t do much for you. As the title suggests, this is never the goal of the film — the term “AFK,” or “Away From Keyboard,” we’re told is preferred to “IRL – In Real Life,” as they argue the Internet is real life. While focusing on the 2009 Swedish trial, we get to know the defendants in their real lives, seeing how they are affected by their legal situation, health and family. In my mind, this makes for a much more interesting film — perhaps not politically or intellectually, but certainly as an emotionally satisfying story.
The film perhaps stays away from the obvious political debate because the characters at the heart of it don’t seem to care much about it. The three young men profiled come from slightly different perspectives: Gottfrid Svartholm is perhaps the most radical of the group, while programmer Fredrik Neij just likes the challenge of working on a web project so giangantic and important, and Peter Sunde, the “face” of the company, comes across as a pretty level-headed lad. All three certainly possess some anti-establishment ideas, but they don’t seem nearly as radical as the hordes of protesters, internet hackers, downloaders and others that have come to their ideological defense.
The film, of course, isn’t without bias. The strange release and the film’s final message of “Share this film online,” displayed in text across the screen, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the ideological position of the filmmakers. With that said, I will commend them for giving as neutral a stance as they possibly could. Yes, the people profiled have their particular views, and they express them, but the film does a reasonable job of building trust with the viewer by giving a “warts-and-all” representation. The film openly acknowledges that these men have reprehensible worldviews outside of the copyright debate — a take that could have easily been removed from the finished project without changing the themes or vision of the film in any way. It never manipulates in order to make them look like icons and martyrs — something at least one of the figures doesn’t want to become. It also gives a (brief, but present) voice to the opposition without portraying them as goofs or fascists. As much as I can tell, it displays the historical events surrounding the federal trial accurately and honestly. That said, I imagine if you go into this film with your own personal bias, whether in favor of online piracy or opposed, it’s not going to change your opinion. You might see Gottfrid, Fredrik and Peter as heroes or villains based on your own views, but hopefully you will see them as people — an idea that goes against this entire system.
I don’t mean to overstate it, but TPB AFK might be a landmark type of film. Online pirating is a subject that hasn’t been fully explored in film. Hell, it’s not yet a subject that anyone can fully understand in the legal realm. The way this film was made and released is a major part of the story. What I appreciated most about the film, though, is how surprising it is — not in the context of what happens in the film, but how it defies all the obvious by being a pretty balanced, quiet film about people. If you tend to like films like that, give it a shot.