The Coatesville raid, a terrible pop album, The Moment of Truth, the Internet-Mana debacle. Documentary maker Annie Goldson has gone behind the headlines to create a remarkable portrait of Kim Dotcom – the man who changed the way we use the internet forever.
Anthony Byrt: You started following the Dotcom case after the raid on his Coatesville home in early 2012. Why?
Annie Goldson: I think we all couldn’t help but be aware of the raid, which was such a massive and militarised event. That struck me. But it also struck me how engineered it was. It seemed like the media were ready to go. I found out afterwards that they were being sent press releases by the police, with the address of the mansion and so on. So I felt there was a lot of masterminding and management of the event. I started to think of it as a piece of ideological theatre, I suppose, and that’s when I started to explore it.
Although you’d started to follow the case in 2012, Dotcom didn’t sit down with you for an interview until 2016. How did your relationship with him evolve between those years?
It was really when he launched the Internet Party [in 2014] that I got to know him. Kim was interested in the fact that I wanted to explore deeper issues – surveillance, piracy, copyright infringement, sovereignty – which concern him a great deal. I was determined to get an interview with him and I also wanted access to his fantastic personal [film] archive. Everything in it is either intimate, handheld-type stuff – vérité – or it’s amazingly high-end: three Red cameras, helicopter shots zooming over luxury yachts. So it was quite a contrast, and quite a feast for me as a film-maker.
There’s been a lot written and said here about Dotcom since the raid. What did you think a film could bring that was new or different?
I’ve written about the idea that documentary now is almost like ‘journalism-plus’: it stands in for a lot of the journalism that isn’t being done anymore. I think it’s also very good at telling these kinds of social histories in an accessible but reasonably complex way. And the Dotcom case is an ongoing story, with international significance.
And yet plenty of New Zealanders have now put Dotcom out of their minds.
That’s right. A lot of people even think he’s left the country! But he’s really under ‘country arrest’: if he leaves New Zealand he’ll be picked up and taken to Washington for trial.
He’s a larger-than-life character – bombastic, antagonistic, narcissistic. The documentary also shows he’s got a pretty decent messianic streak, just like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. How did you manage the process of piecing the film together, with such a big presence looming over it?
Kim understood the film needed to be independent, but he’s a man who’s used to controlling his image: that’s what he’s done all his life. To me, there’s a gap between the real Kim – if you can say there’s a real Kim – and the image he has projected. And for him of course, the stakes are very high. But he knew he couldn’t editorially interfere, as that would make the film lose credibility.
That’s so interesting given that Laura Poitras, who made Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, has just made a documentary about Julian Assange. Although Assange gave her full access, he’s now furious about the way she’s portrayed him.
I know! In the end, Kim did have issues with the film, but perhaps more about what isn’t in the film, rather than what is. A lot of other hackers and people who write about the internet are ambivalent about Kim because his ambition was always to make money for himself. And yet on the other hand, he’s prepared to taunt powerful people and, despite the battles, has retained his offbeat humour. The 2013 restaging of the raid was hilarious; it was like performance art. He’s not going to go quietly into the night.
What struck me watching the film is that, as much as he’s an individual, there’s something archetypal about him, because of what his story says about the age we live in. His backstory – the time before he arrived in New Zealand – is vital to this.
That’s right. In the 1990s, when most hackers kept their heads down, he was highly visible. He always courted the media. Rather than being a technical genius, I think he’s an ideas man and a publicist. One journalist points out in the film that Kim knows what people want. People were just waiting for something like Megaupload to come along. He made content accessible in ways that were very easy, and he definitely benefitted financially. But you could argue that without Megaupload, we might not have things like Dropbox or Netflix – because it showed there was a commercial model for streaming. At the time, there weren’t legal options and a lot of work simply wasn’t available, particularly outside the most wealthy Western countries. You can’t cover the world with a big copying machine like the internet and then tell people not to make copies.
And this is really the central debate about what he’s done. He claims that 20th century copyright law is unfit for the world we now live in, and so Megaupload was finding forms of advocacy and copyright that would work for artists and audiences alike. Do you buy that?
Look, Kim made a heap of money along the way, so he wasn’t motivated by the betterment of the world. But, I don’t know. He claims Megaupload was developing new, legal alternatives when they were shut down, so that was a possibility.
That became a very interesting old world/new world contrast in the film. The documentary seems to concur with Dotcom’s argument that the Motion Picture Association of America was the driving force behind his indictment, particularly given its influence with the Obama administration.
Journalists have proven through metadata analysis that the MPAA wrote press releases for US Attorney Generals in various states, and that these were influential in determining policies. It seems like the MPAA’s entire purpose is to bring about massive lawsuits that cost millions of dollars. For an advocacy group, you’d think they’d invest more in finding models of distribution that work for people, particularly creatives and makers. So, there’s no definitive link I’ve been able to make, but I would say – perhaps with my academic’s hat on – that the business interests of the movie studios and the US Government would be ideologically aligned.
This brings me to an event I think so many New Zealanders underestimate in terms of its cultural significance: ‘The Moment of Truth’, just before the 2014 election here. How do you view it?
I think, in a sense, Dotcom blew it. He started to leak tweets: ‘John Key knew about me before the raid’ and so forth. A fairly large portion of New Zealand was hoping John Key would have to resign, so Dotcom’s pending ‘proof’ became the focus. When the evidence wasn’t delivered, what went down the plughole was the very important information about mass surveillance here, and what that means for political dissent, for privacy, for intimacy. How can we conduct our business deals, our personal relationships, our political discussions if we think we’re being listened to? Every totalitarian regime understands a population under surveillance is a passive, self-censoring population.
Dotcom and others like Nicky Hager have said that New Zealand is integral to global mass surveillance. And in “The Moment of Truth”, we had Assange, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald saying the same thing.
Absolutely. At the democratic heart of our biggest city – the Auckland Town Hall – we had the four biggest enemies of the United States assembled! In some ways, I thought, ‘only in New Zealand’. When a reviewer wrote that I’d done this difficult thing of creating a genuinely balanced documentary about an internet personality, I started to think about what that means. A number of internet personalities like Dotcom, Assange, Peter Thiel, are really creatures of our times – that blend of chutzpah, entrepreneurialism, cyber-libertarianism, shifting politics, and conceit. Contradictions may trip Dotcom up. For example, he’s outspokenly opposed to Thiel, because Thiel’s company Palantir sells software to Five Eyes. I don’t think he’ll be able to reconcile this with his courting of Donald Trump and the alt-right, given the apparent pally ties between Thiel and his president.
The Thiel connection is fascinating – yet another example of New Zealand’s weird, unsettling place in the global-tech story. And the film has a very New Zealand arc.
I worried the film was too local for international audiences, and local audiences might think they already knew everything that occurred here. But I think it’s enriched by the fact I’m so interested in New Zealand culture and politics. By the time we got to the Internet-Mana period, we were on marae around the country. In Whakatane, at their very nice marae, we all sat down and were plunged into darkness, and there was a sound and light show. Dotcom stood up afterwards and said, “this marae reminds me of me. It’s big, it’s warm, and it’s high-tech”. And everyone cracked up. A lot of filmmakers wanted to make a documentary about him. But because he was ‘stuck in paradise’, they couldn’t be here like I was. So in many ways, I was lucky.
Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web screens 29, 31 Jul and 6 Aug at the NZ International Film Festival.