NZIFF 2017 Review: Decoding A Web Tycoon In KIM DOTCOM – CAUGHT IN THE WEB

New Zealand-made documentary weaves a compelling and expansive tale in broad, thrilling strokes.

As a country, New Zealand’s relationship with internet mogul/hacker/folk hero/pirate Kim Dotcom is a dense, tangled thing, featuring in its long and storied history an assault on his immense compound in a small rural area, an ongoing court case, a release of perhaps the worst album in New Zealand history, and a failed political movement. Currently fighting extradition prosecution that would see him shipped to the United States to face charges that could result in life imprisonment, the founder of MegaUpload (among other ‘filesharing’ internet services) has lived an outsized life, and Dotcom has the colorful vivacity to match. He makes for a fascinating centre of a feature film, an elusive, unreadable internet pioneer whose intentions are never entirely clear, whose motives for certain moves he makes are consistently murky and whose grandiose personality covers what could be something darker beneath.

It was a strange and uniquely thrilling feeling, in a classically New Zealand small-country-syndrome kind of way, to find ourselves at the centre of an enormous extradition case, one that started with simple copyright fraud and soon escalated into questions about security, spying, corporate interest in government and the United States’ control over our own. The fact that a physically giant, blond, grinning German hacker – part-Jordan Belfort, part-Jay Gatsby, part-Goldfinger - was at the centre of the whole thing elevated the story to stranger-than-fiction heights as it simultaneously rocketed it to the world stage of a new battleground of internet-conflicts that would increasingly anchor around two major figures – Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

Both Assange and Snowden briefly appear in Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web, one of, if not the highest profile New Zealand documentaries ever produced and one that stretches itself to numerous far-reaching continents and covers the Dotcom case from a number of points of view – journalists, government officials, music industry representatives, professors and academics, New Zealand locals, and of course, the man himself. Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Annie Goldson, the film is clearly following in the footsteps of those earlier documentaries on other controversial figures of the internet information age – Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and Risk. Unlike those films, the narrative of this story is unclear enough that the expectation that audiences have some awareness of its big moments cannot be assured, and Caught in the Web largely operates as a primer and recap of the story, from a laudably objective position that, for the most part, avoids taking a stance in the way Citizenfour and, to an extent, Risk certainly did.

Part of what achieves this is the filmmakers’ focus on the story and history of the figure at the centre, largely playing out from outside of the narrative of the filmmakers themselves – indeed, according to Goldson, the interviews conducted in the film with Dotcom were a last minute opportunity, and thus occurred after much of the filming and editing had already elapsed. This means that Goldson and her collaborators are largely not present in the story itself, impassive but compellingly persuasive commentators on the events, and whatever judgements or points of view the audience ultimately comes to are largely reliant on the people who are directly involved in the various cases and upon the worldviews they bring into the viewing. At times, Caught in the Web runs the risk of all encyclopaedic documentary features – that of becoming merely procedural, ticking off all the boxes as it works its way through the story, something the film comes dangerously, if unavoidably, close to in filling the blanks of Dotcom’s background for layman viewers in the first act. Luckily, the film ably moves past this and begins digging into juicier, more ethically troubling material relatively quickly, aided by some slick camera work and reliably illuminating archival footage from news outlets and, apparently, from Dotcom’s personal files.

These later acts of the film focus on the constantly surprising aftermath of perhaps the most notable aspect of the Dotcom story – the assault-style raid on his New Zealand based mansion by New Zealand armed forces. Goldson methodically and effectively peels away the layers of the story, revealing the extent of the cover-up almost assuredly coordinated by the United States government with the very highest offices of the New Zealand government (including the hissably complicit New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, whose self-incriminating work in archival footage here is enjoyably weaponized in a way that casts deep shadows on the populist, man-of-the-people schtick Key always hid behind before his sudden resignation in 2016), as well as the American film and music industries. There are arguably no real revelations or ‘gotcha’ moments here, and the interviews conducted with Dotcom, government officials and representatives across the board, while impressively collected, are mostly just defenses of each sides’ case. Nevertheless, it is undeniably thrilling to watch the escalation of the case, interrupted by a lengthy detour into Dotcom’s foray into politics, particularly in the context of what would eventually become one of the biggest cases of potential government corruption in New Zealand history. Even as Dotcom becomes a piece of a much bigger, more sinister puzzle, his presence in the story remains an anchor, and for better or worse, the film keeps a sharp eye on the Dotcom position in the story at all times.

In today’s mile a minute news cycle, context is everything, and much in the way Assange’s many revelations cast new light on the footage Poitras compiled in Risk, Dotcom’s recent forays into the myriad scandals plaguing the United States government exposes new layers to the story presented here. Finished before Dotcom’s apparent commitment to certain damaging conspiracy theories and his curious silence on the crises that follow the current administration, it is difficult not to watch the events Dotcom at least in part contributed to – namely the systemic devaluing of governmental and institutional structures and their eventual dismantling in the 2016 election cycle – as an impartial observer, and to that end Caught in the Web feels at least partially like a story that lamentably finishes before the really revealing stuff begins. That said, much art from this era struggles to keep up with the endless twists and turns real life seems to be providing, and Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web largely takes this in stride as well as any modern-day documentary could be expected to, and in the telling becomes a dense, well-made foray into a fascinating footnote in the internet privacy wars, capturing that calm-before-the-storm period of time that feels so recent and so long ago in which Dotcom was at the forefront of international intrigue.