We Are Legion: SXSW Review

Strong, entertaining portrait of a hard-to-pin-down online phenomenon.

Brian Knappenberger's documentary explores the underground, nebulous hacktivist group known as Anonymous.

AUSTIN - Essential viewing for those frustrated by the media's seeming inability to digest one of our moment's most important stories, We Are Legion offers an impressive introduction to an amorphous movement that is alternatingly demonized, caricatured and misunderstood by outsiders. Colorful and substantive enough to sustain a theatrical run, it will likely stand for some time as an excellent point of entry for the non-hacker public.

The Anonymous phenomenon is, admittedly, incredibly difficult to tackle in a short news report. Leaderless and without a single agenda, it doesn't even comfortably conform to words like "movement" or "organization." But filmmaker Brian Knappenberger makes some sense of it by talking to many individuals associated with its actions -- both mask-wearing, pseudonymed activists and those who (often because they've already been prosecuted) are willing to be exposed on camera. He also interviews scholars and journalists who have varying degrees of sympathy for hacker lawbreaking.

Illustrating the roots of hacking with tales of decades-old college pranks, the film sets the stage for the inside-jokes that fill influential online communities. It introduces us to 4Chan, the anything-goes site hosting message boards like "/b/," whose mission is described as presenting images so strange or disturbing that, once seen, they can't be forgotten.

Given the proliferation of anonymous commenters on sites like this, it was a small leap to envision a hive-brain of jokers collectively called Anonymous; when users began pulling real-world pranks on the racist radio host Hal Turner, some began to think of Anonymous as a "force for good," or "the Internet's first army," instead of a mere source of laughs.

Indignation about Scientology gives this army its first official war, and the group's call for in-the-flesh protest provides dramatic evidence of just how widespread, and how diverse, its support is. The film takes a breakneck ride from this groundbreaking action to others supporting WikiLeaks, and to the historic role like-minded techies played in the Arab Spring.

At the same time, Knappenberger follows the uglier sides of this multifaceted phenomenon, ranging from just-for-laughs hackers who mock anyone using their tools for a cause ("stop ruining our bad name!" they cry), to offshoots like LulzSec, whose corporation-taunting stunts showed no concern for the personal data of innocent bystanders.

Since many of the tropes and tactics described here were born of hackers' attempts to amuse each other, it's easy for We Are Legion to entertain viewers even when chronicling history-making events. Not every viewer will see the humor in an obscure Anime reference, but the general spirit of authority-tweaking pranksterism is infectious.

The more we hear from actual hackers here, the harder it is to view them as a single entity. We Are Legion won't convince every viewer that someone who enables music piracy might also be a force for good in some other way, but it lays a groundwork for more intelligent discussion of the online activism that will inevitably play a larger and larger role in our political discourse.

Venue: South By Southwest film festival, Festival Favorites
Production Company: Luminant Media
Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Brian Knappenberger
Director of photography: Dan Krauss, Lincoln Else, Scott Sinkler
Music: John Dragonnetti
Editor: Andy Robertson
Sales: John Dragonnetti, Luminant Media
No rating, 93 minutes