Bal­lad of a big man

Annie Gold­son’s new film about Kim Dotcom raises is­sues over copy­right, ex­tra­di­tion, pri­vacy, sur­veil­lance and much more. The vet­eran doc­u­men­tary­maker tells Metro about her ap­proach to the job.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — CHRIS BAR­TON

Annie Gold­son’s new film about Kim Dotcom raises is­sues over copy­right, ex­tra­di­tion, pri­vacy and much more.

How did she get such in­ti­mate ac­cess? Are they still on speak­ing terms? What was the na­ture of the film-maker-and-sub­ject re­la­tion­ship? These are the sorts of re­cur­ring ques­tions Annie Gold­son fielded at both the South by South­west and Hot Docs film fes­ti­val screen­ings of her lat­est movie, Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web.

When we meet in her bunker-like of­fice with its mean, ill-po­si­tioned win­dows on the fifth floor of the some­what Stal­in­ist Hu­man Sciences build­ing at the Univer­sity of Auck­land, there’s not much sign that the me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­part­ment pro­fes­sor is such a highly dec­o­rated film-maker. Her films have won more than 50 awards at in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­vals. In 2007, she was gonged — of­fi­cer of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit — for ser­vices to film. She’s a fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety of New Zealand and has won sev­eral re­search ex­cel­lence awards. As al­ways, there’s new work on the go — a film col­lab­o­ra­tion about the women’s march which is cur­rently crowd-sourc­ing in­ter­views from par­tic­i­pants world­wide. On a com­pletely dif­fer­ent tack there’s The Im­pe­rial Throne: the Mil­lion­aire, the Prince and the Dis­ap­pear­ing Is­lands, about Rus­sian oli­garch An­ton Bakov’s mad plan to set up the Ro­manov em­pire in Kiri­bati.

For now, we’re talk­ing Caught in the Web, due to show here at the New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val in July-Au­gust and to be re­leased by Grav­i­tas Ven­tures in the United States and, ideally, si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­ter­na­tion­ally on Au­gust 22.

Ob­vi­ously, the doc­u­men­tary could have been made with­out Dotcom’s co-op­er­a­tion. The larger-than-life delin­quent dig­i­tal na­tive has blazed a broad trail of his life and times on the in­ter­net for all to see. But get­ting ac­cess to it for a doc­u­men­tary was al­ways go­ing to be prob­lem­atic, iron­i­cally be­cause of copy­right.

Most of the more flam­boy­ant stuff — the lux­ury life­style, the par­ties, the yachts, the ex­otic lo­ca­tions, the fast cars and the bikini women — was shot or com­mis­sioned by Dotcom. When he ar­rived in New Zealand with wife Mona and the kids to start a new life, a pri­vate videog­ra­pher al­ways seemed to be in tow, es­pe­cially once the trou­ble started. One way or an­other, Kim Sch­mitz, born in 1974 in Kiel, Ger­many, was go­ing to bask in fame or in­famy; he didn’t seem to care which. Sch­mitz was never a name to re­mem­ber. At 18, he pre­ferred Kim­ble, his hacker moniker styled af­ter Dr Richard Kim­ble of The Fugi­tive; then Kim Tim Jim Vestor; the Kim­ster; His Royal High­ness King Kim­ble the First, Ruler of the Kim­pire; fi­nally set­tling upon the com­i­cal Kim Dotcom, his le­gal name since 2005. Some­times he was Me­garacer, un­der which he be­came the No 1 player world­wide in Call of Duty Mod­ern War­fare 3. The New Zealand po­lice and our Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Se­cu­rity Bureau spy agency dubbed him Billy Big Steps as they spied on him and pre­pared to raid his Dotcom Man­sion on Jan­uary 20, 2012.

With so much of the footage in Dotcom’s con­trol, how to get it? More im­por­tantly, how to tell, and be seen to tell, the story in­de­pen­dently? “My con­cern was that a film on Kim, like films on many con­tro­ver­sial in­ter­net per­son­al­i­ties, risks be­ing a ha­giog­ra­phy or a hatchet job,” says Gold­son. “I didn’t want to do ei­ther.”

Like many New Zealan­ders, she be­came aware of Dotcom and his mega-per­son­al­ity af­ter the raid. “It was a shock and sur­prise. Not many of us knew Dotcom was liv­ing here, that he was associated with Me­gau­pload — or even what Me­gau­pload was.” It was the mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the raid that both­ered her most. “I’m some­one who feels there ought to be other so­lu­tions rather than us­ing live am­mu­ni­tion, flak jack­ets, he­li­copters and at­tack dogs,” she says. “I’m not a to­tal peacenik — some­times a show of force is nec­es­sary. But in this in­stance, ba­si­cally a fraud case, a ‘white col­lar’ crime, I felt our gov­ern­ment and po­lice force went way over­board and were too will­ing to act on be­half of the United States. The raid was con­ducted for its ‘op­tics’, to use a fancy term.”

Other things dis­turbed her, too. The me­dia had been kept in the loop. “Ap­par­ently, the po­lice were send­ing out press re­leases as the raid hap­pened, let­ting jour­nal­ists know the ad­dress and fill­ing them in on the back­story. That smacked of con­trivance to me and, by the looks of it, the me­dia both na­tion­ally and overseas seemed largely to re­peat the press re­lease, which had some ma­jor in­ac­cu­ra­cies.”

As well as the as­sault on New Zealand’s au­ton­omy and sovereignty, Gold­son started to think about the ma­jor is­sue the case ad­dressed — copy­right. “I can’t con­done piracy, but as a con­sumer, I’ve of­ten wanted to get ac­cess to films and tele­vi­sion that are just not avail­able here legally.” As a film­maker, Gold­son laments the pro­hib­i­tive copy­right and li­cens­ing costs of archive footage. At $125 a sec­ond, she says, such film-en­rich­ing footage — of­ten pro­duced here by our state broad­caster or via other gov­ern­ment fund­ing agen­cies such as Creative New Zealand or New Zealand On Air — is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly out of reach to doc­u­men­tary mak­ers. “My own work is im­pos­si­ble to dis­trib­ute as I never had enough money to clear archives in­def­i­nitely [se­cure copy­right in per­pe­tu­ity].” While her films are crit­i­cally ac­claimed, distri­bu­tion via the in­ter­net isn’t im­prov­ing her lot. “I haven’t done par­tic­u­larly well through tra­di­tional distri­bu­tion meth­ods. There’s still quite an army of mid­dle­men be­tween the film and the au­di­ence.”

Then there were the reve­la­tions about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and ques­tions about how a man with a crim­i­nal record could be granted res­i­dency here. By now Gold­son, who had teamed up with pro­ducer Alex Behse and se­cured $800,000 of New Zealand Film Com­mis­sion fund­ing, had a film where the cen­tral char­ac­ter pro­vided a melt­ing pot of is­sues — copy­right, ex­tra­di­tion, pri­vacy and sur­veil­lance, the con­sump­tion of en­ter­tain­ment and other me­dia in the in­ter­net age, the in­flu­ence of Hol­ly­wood and New Zealand’s re­la­tion­ship with the US.

“My ap­proach is of­ten a com­bi­na­tion of a per­sonal story placed within ei­ther a con­text or history,” says Gold­son. “How can you un­der­stand the geno­cides in East Ti­mor and Cam­bo­dia with­out un­der­stand­ing the Cold War? How can you un­der­stand the Dotcom story with­out think­ing about the fight over in­for­ma­tion in the in­ter­net era?” Be­neath ev­ery story there’s al­ways a range of is­sues that she finds ab­sorb­ing. “I of­ten deal with peo­ple who I would say are heroic.”

Whether its He­len Todd fight­ing for jus­tice in East Ti­mor ( Puni­tive Dam­age, 1999) or Rob Hamill do­ing

My con­cern was that a film on Kim risks be­ing a ha­giog­ra­phy or a hatchet job. I didn’t want to do ei­ther.

the same in Cam­bo­dia ( Brother Num­ber One, 2011), there is a clear sense of right and wrong. “In the end, how you view Dotcom de­pends very much on where you stand on a se­ries of is­sues.”

How did she get Dotcom to play ball? “Kim is some­one who has al­ways been clever at con­trol­ling his im­age. He’s al­ways liked me­dia cov­er­age and he’s cer­tainly self-doc­u­mented him­self. Even at 18 years old, he was care­fully re­leas­ing some of his ac­tiv­i­ties to the me­dia.” Dotcom has pre­dom­i­nately done that on his own terms. “We sort of snuck in film­ing when he was rel­a­tively pub­lic dur­ing the In­ter­net Mana [po­lit­i­cal al­liance] pe­riod. He had to front up to the me­dia at the time in a less con­trolled man­ner.”

This was prob­a­bly the pin­na­cle of Dotcom’s mega­lo­ma­nia, the out­ra­geous idea that he could ex­ploit the mixed-mem­ber pro­por­tional (MMR) elec­toral sys­tem and get enough votes to win seats in Par­lia­ment. His mo­tives re­mained ob­scure, but he seemed to think it would help his case against ex­tra­di­tion to the US.

The In­ter­net Mana part­ner­ship never made much sense: Dotcom, the in­ter­net en­tre­pre­neur with rightwing ten­den­cies (cer­tainly when it came to min­imis­ing his tax bill), cou­pled with then-MP Hone Harawira and for­mer Cab­i­net min­is­ter Laila Harré rep­re­sent­ing the ideals of a pro­gres­sive left. It all went hor­ri­bly wrong — no seats, no po­lit­i­cal power. Harré and Harawira’s rep­u­ta­tions were left in tat­ters, along with those of oth­ers who had par­tic­i­pated in the farce, no­tably jour­nal­ist, broad­caster and for­mer MP Pam Cork­ery and Scoop Me­dia co-founder Alas­tair Thomp­son.

“I just kept turn­ing up at these In­ter­net Mana events and he got to know me a bit,” Gold­son says. “Ev­ery so of­ten we would have meet­ings and I would beg for an in­ter­view and he would put us off. He was a busy guy.” It ended with In­ter­net Mana’s mem­o­rable elec­tion-night

de­feat and Dotcom’s ad­mis­sion: the party would do bet­ter when “my brand and my poi­son is re­moved”.

Gold­son had to com­mit to do­ing a film with­out the in­ter­view she des­per­ately wanted. “I had the pa­tience and de­ter­mi­na­tion to know we’d prob­a­bly get an in­ter­view in the end.” Dotcom con­ceded when she was about two-thirds of the way through the film’s edit. There was a sim­i­larly long ne­go­ti­a­tion to buy rights to Dotcom’s ex­ten­sive per­sonal archive. “It was like a trea­sure trove — both very in­ti­mate home movies, hand-held, evoca­tive, but also very high-end lux­ury shots: red cam­eras, drones and he­li­copters and so forth.”

Gold­son’s ideal film would have in­volved a much more ob­ser­va­tional view of his daily life. The archive was a stand-in for that kind of in­ti­macy, used to in­ter­weave emo­tional mo­ments through­out the film: meet­ing Mona for the first time, re­turn­ing home af­ter be­ing re­leased on bail, be­ing there for the birth of his twins. Sud­denly the car­i­ca­ture Dotcom is very real and hu­man. “I think his story is quite Shake­spearean in all its ups and downs.” Com­edy or tragedy? Un­doubt­edly both. Gold­son’s film asks us to con­sider the na­ture of the much-vaunted role of en­tre­pre­neur. “Don’t en­trepreneurs al­ways work in that grey area? Is Dotcom any dif­fer­ent from Ted Turner or the oil barons? Or the founder of Uber? Or Airbnb? Or Bill Gates? Or in fact early Hol­ly­wood, which was happy to ‘bor­row’ copy­righted sto­ries from Grimm, from Thomas Hardy and oth­ers?”

In Gold­son’s Shake­spearean view, Dotcom’s story is a fight be­tween tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and older mod­els of en­trepreneur­ship. A con­tent copy­right war. “If you ask for le­gal copies, very of­ten the own­ers are go­ing to set the price ridicu­lously high be­cause they don’t want com­pe­ti­tion. If you use it il­le­git­i­mately, you are sued out of ex­is­tence. In fact, it’s 80 years in prison.”

Gold­son gives a close-up of the bat­tle in a siege-like scene of life in the man­sion — Dotcom and oth­ers around the din­ing room ta­ble chant­ing, “They fucked up”, at one of the many mis­steps by the Crown in the case against him.

She says she was able to build trust with Dotcom be­cause he saw she was en­gaged with the is­sues his story brings up. He also knew what­ever film was made, it would have to be seen to be in­de­pen­dent. “He de­cided in the end it was bet­ter for him to be in the waka than out­side it.”

As she does with all her sub­jects, Gold­son let Dotcom see the film when it was in late rough cut, close to locked off. That was partly to ful­fil con­trac­tual agree­ments that al­lowed for fact check­ing. Her mantra to her sub­jects: “If there is some­thing you re­ally, re­ally have a prob­lem with, we can talk about it, but I have to re­tain editorial con­trol.” Did he want changes? “There were a cou­ple of points he wanted em­pha­sis­ing or that he felt needed a re­join­der. I was pre­pared to con­sider these re­quests and felt they did not im­pact on the editorial line of the film. It is Kim Dotcom’s life, af­ter all.” The sort of change she’s talk­ing about is whether, as re­ported, Dotcom was hold­ing a sawnoff shot­gun dur­ing the raid; he wasn’t.

Telling it as it was. “The film is not nec­es­sar­ily proDot­com,” she says. “But on the other hand, nei­ther is it pro-in­dus­try or gov­ern­ment. I’ve tried to air a se­ries of is­sues that are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to us all and that I be­lieve ex­ceed the Dotcom case.”

I first met Gold­son in late 2015 when I worked briefly as a re­searcher on the project. I’d writ­ten about many of the le­gal machi­na­tions of the ex­tra­di­tion case and in 2013 had in­ter­viewed Dotcom for a fea­ture in Metro. I got a glimpse of Gold­son’s metic­u­lous, ex­haus­tive process, how she masses vast amounts of footage and in­ter­views — around 70. “In the doc­u­men­tary process, gen­er­ally you do shoot wide. We in­ter­viewed aca­demics, jour­nal­ists, mu­si­cians and friends and foes of Dotcom. Some ad­dressed copy­right is­sues, oth­ers dis­cussed sur­veil­lance.” Then some 400 hours of footage is whit­tled down to an hour and half. “There is not much about the law in there in the end. Fights over file sizes, re­wards pro­grammes and the dif­fer­ence be­tween civil and crim­i­nal law are not easy to rep­re­sent or easy for au­di­ences to grasp.” Get­ting to the essence meant ad­dress­ing the abuses of process by var­i­ous bungling New Zealand bu­reau­cra­cies, which is what led to the string of law­suits and the de­lay in the ex­tra­di­tion hear­ing.

Ap­ply­ing the Gold­son process of win­now­ing down masses of ma­te­rial to tell the es­sen­tials of her life story yields the fol­low­ing: She was born in Manch­ester, Eng­land, and sailed to New Zealand in the 1960s with her brother and sis­ter on the Do­min­ion Monarch. Her fa­ther was a doctor. He was half Jewish, her mother Angli­can. “Dad was not re­ally en­gag­ing with his Jewish­ness. We were sent to the Sun­day School around the cor­ner.”

The fam­ily lived in North­cote. Gold­son went to St Cuth­bert’s, then to West­lake Girls. “We had a pretty idyl­lic up­bring­ing. Our house backed onto the Taka­puna mu­nic­i­pal golf course off Sun­ny­brae Rd. We had ac­cess to this end­less play­ground.” Her first de­gree was a BSc from Otago, then a post-grad­u­ate diploma in jour­nal­ism from Can­ter­bury. She worked as a jour­nal­ist for Ra­dio New Zealand in Welling­ton. Then she dis­cov­ered the avant-garde theatre troupe Red Mole and ev­ery­thing changed. “I was in­fat­u­ated when I first saw Red Mole. I found them funny. They were spec­tac­u­lar. They were in­sight­ful. And they were po­lit­i­cally en­gaged.” They were also go­ing to New York. Gold­son, who had a boyfriend who was a dancer with the com­pany, hitched a ride. There she be­gan to teach her­self film-mak­ing, got a green card, fin­ished an MA in film and tele­vi­sion stud­ies at New York Univer­sity in 1986, and taught at the Ivy League Brown Univer­sity in Rhode Is­land. “Those years in

The film is not nec­es­sar­ily pro-Dotcom. But on the other hand, nei­ther is it pro-in­dus­try or gov­ern­ment. I’ve tried to air a se­ries of is­sues that are crit­i­cally im­por­tant to us all.

New York were re­ally in­flu­en­tial. It was a highly ac­tive time cul­tur­ally and po­lit­i­cally. It was the Rea­gan years. There was also a lot of com­mu­nity ac­tivism and for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Those two as­pects fused for me. I saw my­self more as a video artist through the 1980s, but then I shifted back to my more jour­nal­is­tic roots, to doc­u­men­tary again.”

It was dur­ing this time that she made Coun­tert­er­ror, a four-part doc­u­men­tary that ex­am­ined how the term “ter­ror­ism” was used to crim­i­nalise po­lit­i­cal dis­sent. The project in­cluded en­gag­ing with groups re­lated to the Black Pan­thers and ac­tivists in North­ern Ire­land. “A lot of the pos­i­tive po­lit­i­cal im­pulses of the 1960s and 1970s were forced un­der­ground by the FBI, in par­tic­u­lar through their ‘Coin­tel­pro’ [Counter In­tel­li­gence Pro­gramme]. I see it as an ear­lier ver­sion of the NSA and Five Eyes,” she says, re­fer­ring to Amer­ica’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency and the es­pi­onage al­liance in­volv­ing New Zealand, Aus­tralia, Canada, Bri­tain and the US.

In 1993, she re­turned to New Zealand to take up an aca­demic role in film stud­ies at Auck­land Univer­sity, and she’s been there ever since. She lives with her long­time part­ner, Don­ald Gif­ford. They have a 22-year-old son, Ben, who works at stu­dent ra­dio sta­tion bFM.

Since she’s been back in New Zealand she’s made 11 doc­u­men­tary films.

The re­views to date of Caught in the Web bear tes­ta­ment to the film’s ob­jec­tiv­ity. Rolling Stone: “Whether you think he’s a hero or a heel, you’re bound to leave the film with your pre­con­cep­tions shat­tered.” EQ Mu­sic: “It will make you think and force you to choose which side of in­ter­net history you be­long on.” Sight & Sound: “She doesn’t judge, but there is cer­tainly more than one vil­lain in her film.”

Even the voice of Hol­ly­wood, Va­ri­ety, recog­nises Gold­son’s film gives Dotcom a fair trial, al­though its re­view reads the anti-hero less favourably: “Whether he’s also a sym­pa­thetic fig­ure may de­pend on your feel­ings about re­lent­lessly self-pro­mot­ing types will­ing and able to make hun­dreds of mil­lions fa­cil­i­tat­ing the theft of other peo­ple’s prop­erty — i.e. pop­u­lar movies and mu­sic — to re­alise their delu­sions of per­sonal grandeur.”

Is Gold­son happy with the “ob­jec­tive” la­bel? “It’s funny, I’ve never been a big fan of ob­jec­tiv­ity. I cri­tique it aca­dem­i­cally, but I seem to have to re­turn to it in my films some­times.” She’s talk­ing about how to por­tray com­plex is­sues such as those cov­ered her 2013 film, He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan, a fore­run­ner to the Nicky Hager and Jon Stephen­son book Hit & Run. “Our point in mak­ing the film was: Why did we go there? What did we do there? And why did we hear so lit­tle about it?” Gold­son is also very crit­i­cal of main­stream me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tion. “New Zealan­ders would go if John Key was go­ing or if the Min­is­ter of De­fence was go­ing and they would just film what they were shown,” says Gold­son. “They would be taken to girls’ schools and there would be the oblig­a­tory stand-up in front of old Soviet tanks. I was pretty crit­i­cal that Jon Stephen­son … was the only per­son, re­ally funded by bake sales, to go and con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions in our long­est war ever.” Did any New Zealand me­dia con­tact her for back­ground af­ter the con­tro­versy over Hit & Run? “No.”

There were sim­i­larly multi-lay­ered is­sues in her 2008 film An Is­land Calling, about the 2001 mur­der of John Scott and his part­ner Greg Scrivener in Suva. “Some of the be­hav­iour by John and Greg and their ac­tiv-

Those years in New York were re­ally in­flu­en­tial. It was a highly ac­tive time cul­tur­ally and po­lit­i­cally. It was the Rea­gan years.

ities could have been ques­tion­able. Peo­ple feel very strongly about that. But they cer­tainly didn’t de­serve to be killed the way they were. So, it was def­i­nitely a ho­mo­pho­bic mur­der. Again, I just told it as it was.”

Gold­son says she’s not ide­o­log­i­cally po­lit­i­cal. “I’m a kind of lefty fem­i­nist type but I’m not re­ally a joiner. Of­ten my work is about pol­i­tics rather than po­lit­i­cal it­self, but then I do see ed­u­ca­tion as a politi­cis­ing func­tion.” Fem­i­nism? “Fem­i­nist as I am, the fem­i­nist move­ment from the 70s did leave peo­ple quite burned. There were a lot of divi­sions within the move­ment around gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, class and race. It was quite dic­ta­to­rial. I’m very cau­tious about be­ing told I can’t wear lip­stick. My the­ory is that fem­i­nism emerged be­cause women were pissed off with Marx­ist men for be­ing lazy and ar­ro­gant,” she laughs. She doesn’t feel she’s been dis­crim­i­nated against. “There is al­ways ev­ery­day sex­ism that you’re up against. But the univer­sity has to be open to the tal­ent it wants to nur­ture.” The glass ceil­ing? “I don’t know what’s given me the con­fi­dence or re­silience be­cause I never re­ally feel that.” She points out that women fea­ture strongly in doc­u­men­tary film mak­ing. Some­thing like 49 per cent of the di­rec­tors at the Hot Docs fes­ti­val in Canada this year were women. In drama, women di­rec­tors num­ber only 5-6 per cent. “Why that is the case is an in­ter­est­ing thing to re­flect upon. There might not be enough money or fame in doc­u­men­taries.”

As well as teach­ing doc­u­men­tary-mak­ing, Gold­son teaches jour­nal­ism stud­ies. She’s both­ered by the dis­turb­ing statistic that 67 per cent of Amer­i­cans (it’s prob­a­bly sim­i­lar here) get their news from Face­book. “That’s got some re­ally pro­found im­pli­ca­tions for jour­nal­ism.” She thinks as jour­nal­ism de­clines, doc­u­men­tary has a key role to play. “A lot of the ethos that mo­ti­vates a cri­tique of cul­ture or a cri­tique of power you find in doc­u­men­tary now. You find those sto­ries that peo­ple ig­nore al­to­gether.” Telling it as it is. “It’s a great time for doc­u­men­tary at the mo­ment. It’s do­ing pretty well at the box of­fice.”

And yes, she’s still speak­ing to Kim Dotcom, just. Ever the player, the pub­lic­ity hound, Dotcom is tweet­ing the film’s re­views.

ABOVE— Kim Dotcom: Caught

in the Web is the 11th doc­u­men­tary Annie Gold­son has made since she re­turned home from New York in 1993.

ABOVE— The in­ter­net en­tre­pre­neur has be­come a larg­erthan-life char­ac­ter on the me­dia land­scape.

ABOVE— Dotcom re-en­acts his 2012 ar­rest for sup­port­ers at the launch of his new com­pany, Mega.

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