Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists is a lot of things, but first and foremost it’s an outstanding example of documentary filmmaking done perfectly; it’s exciting, it’s propulsive, it’s entertaining, and it’s insightful. Documentaries should be educational and thorough as a rule, and We Are Legion doesn’t disappoint in that respect, but Knappenberger’s film– despite all of its historical and academic value– regardless manages to carry out its purpose with tongue firmly in cheek.
And maybe there’s a point to that. After all, there’s something intrinsically bizarre about the idea that Knappenberger’s subject, the online, multi-faceted group of prankster-activists, Anonymous, actually has become a genuine catalyst for change in the modern world of social networking and global unrest. Who would have thought something provably good would ever have come out of 4chan?
You may be raising your hand to ask questions at this point. Anonymous? 4chan? There’s a good chance you’re more aware of the former over the latter, especially if you ever made a point to tune into media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the 2008 worldwide protests against the Church of Scientology. 4chan has attained its own level of infamy, though, as one of the most sordid corners of the Internet, particularly its /b/ board, the contents of which have the power to addle and dissolve the grey matter of even the most hardened veterans of web debauchery and vulgarity.
Ultimately your familiarity level with either doesn’t really matter; Knappenberger has researched his subjects so extensively that We Are Legion can almost be guaranteed to teach you something you didn’t know. There are numerous takeaways to this film; notably, it’s hard to get around the idea that Anonymous is comprised of people who at one time considered virtually gathering in an online game and organizing countless virtual avatars into the shape of a Swastika to be utterly hilarious. How do people get from the /b/ board to the global stage? How do the peddlers of every single Internet meme you’ve ever encountered, from lolcats to Chocolate Rain, wind up on the front lines of conflicts between oppressed and dissatisfied populaces and their brutish governments (just one battlefield among many others)? Where do the Anons fit into the Arab Spring and why?
I think I prefer to leave the particulars to the film itself, but the answers are unfailingly compelling. What makes We Are Legion work so well as a media document and as a narrative about contemporary world events lies in how effectively and energetically Knappenberger realizes the genesis of Anonymous from Internet tricksters and ne’er-do-wells to bona fide revolutionaries. Not content with merely serving us a point-by-point lesson on how Anonymous came to take part in social and political kerfuffles the world over, he makes their joint story feel alive. We’re not talking about bleeding heart do-gooders here; even when Anonymous intervenes in, say, the events of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (right up to when Hosni Mubarak stepped down), their involvement just resembles the trolling for which they were previously known. The character of their activities doesn’t change, but the spirit and scale do.
Or maybe it’s some other variation of the three. It’s hard to pin down the motivations of the Anons because they’re so varied; of the actual members interviewed in the documentary (who allowed themselves to be filmed since they’ve already either been confronted by the FBI or had their identities outed by private investigators hired by the Church of Scientology), several take pride in how Anonymous has come to the aid of civilian protests from Iran to Tunisia. And while We Are Legion very specifically notes that members of Anonymous exist who do not approve of the group’s activities, it’s equally clear that Knappenberger does. He’s not simply trying to highlight and praise the tactics of Anonymous in the affairs of other countries, he’s celebrating them. He believes in them.
And that’s because for everything else Anonymous and its members may represent, their actions in the late aughts and the first years of this new fledgling decade are undeniably inspiring. Whether we choose to take the roots of the Anons into consideration or not, We Are Legion is invariably about the power people have when they act and speak as one; it’s a film that demonstrates how anyone can affect change in the world and from anywhere in the world. (Prerequisites of course include computer access and knowledge, but the point nonetheless remains intact.) Maybe more than anything, the film may be saying that if a collective of Internet wiseguys and jesters can impel change in countries that aren’t necessarily their own, why can’t the rest of us?