Monday, February 11, 2013


Chances are, if you're engaged with the issue enough to form an opinion about it in the first place, you're probably fairly entrenched in the way you think about illegal file sharing and the sites, chief among them The Pirate Bay, that make it all possible. Whether you think about them as a vast criminal enterprise, a radical political movement or just a byproduct of an out of touch industry, it's unlikely that a documentary like Simon Klose's new TPB AFK ("The Pirate Bay - Away From Keyboard") is going to change your mind. Which may be why Klose more or less steers clear of polemics or fiery political diatribes, smartly allowing his subjects to extol their virtues (and expose their failings) on their own. The film is, thankfully, not a work of propaganda, so the question becomes: is it a film worth watching?

Following Pirate Bay co-founders Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij and Peter Sunde as they stand trial in a Swedish courtroom, charged with the somewhat vague crime of "assisting others in copyright infringement", while also strategizing ways to ensure their creation stays online no matter what. The proceedings are just as much about politics as the law, watched intently by both the powerful Hollywood film industry, who miss no opportunity to demonize the defendants, and the crowds of protesters outside (and online) who are more than ready to make them martyrs. The testimony is pretty fascinating stuff on its own, but the film really comes to life away from the courtroom, where it becomes a character study of its passionate and deeply flawed protagonists: Svartholm the no-nonsense, substance abusing programmer, Neij the racist xenophobe with a Laotian bride, and, the most likable of the bunch, Sunde the reluctant spokesperson who does his best to hold everything together.

There's a slight lack of suspense about the impending verdict, with all three on the loose and jetting back and forth between Stockholm and the South Pacific and, after appeals, facing a sentence of less than a year, but the look of the film is pure political thriller, from the fluorescent-lit courtrooms to the ominous looking bunkers that house the Pirate Bay's nuts and bolts. At the end of the day though, it's less about the corporate and legal wrangling that surrounds their predicament and more about the men themselves, who seem to have created something that far exceeds their control ("It's disorganized crime" Neij remarks at one point) and struggle to make sense of it as much as anyone else. Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, and distributed for free online under a Creative Commons license (including via the Pirate Bay itself, also on YouTube here), it's not hard to suss out where Klose's ideology lies, but it's hard to accuse his film of pandering. You don't have to be a free Internet crusader or even a torrent user to be enthralled by TPB AFK, there's more than enough drama in its portrayal of imperfect individuals straining to shape an uncertain future, for better or worse.

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