Sundance films take on Net addiction, life of Aaron Swartz

Several documentaries competing in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival pan in on tech's darker sides.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
2 min read

From the film "Web Junkies," a documentary competing at Sundance Film Festival 2014 about a Beijing rehab center where Chinese teenagers diagnosed with Internet addiction are being "deprogrammed." Hilla Medalia and Miao Wang, courtesy of Sundance Institute
The Sundance Film Festival, as it's happening each January in Park City, Utah, is a world unto itself, covered with snow and stars and storytellers.

But the films the festival showcases are very much a reflection of the real world and times, and so it's no surprise to see a lineup released this week for next year's festival that delves into our increasingly digital lives, including the dark sides. Two of the documentaries competing in January deal with Internet addiction, and another is on the life and tragic death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

The latter, competing in the U.S. documentary category, is called "The Internet's Own Boy: The story of Aaron Swartz," directed by Brian Knappenberger. Sundance describes the film as follows:

Programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz achieved groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing. His passion for open access ensnared him in a legal nightmare that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.

Swartz, who co-founded Reddit, committed suicide earlier this year while under federal prosecution. He was arrested in July 2011 and accused of stealing 4 million documents from MIT and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. He had faced up to $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison if convicted.

Critics of the prosecutors in the case accused the feds of unfairly trying to make an example out of the 26-year-old Internet activist. Swartz's family called his death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

From the film "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz." Noah Berger, courtesy of Sundance Institute

The other two aforementioned films will be competing in the international documentary category. "Love Child," directed by Valerie Veatch, is about a young couple in Seoul accused of neglect when addiction to an online fantasy game "costs the life of their infant child." The film documents the 2010 story and resulting trial and ruling.

"Web Junkie," by Israeli directors Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, takes us to China, the first country to label "Internet addiction" as a clinical disorder. The film investigates a Beijing rehab center where Chinese teenagers are being "deprogrammed."

Other notable films to look out for include "Camp X-Ray," starring Kristen Stewart who takes on the role of a guard in Guantanamo Bay who strikes up an unlikely relationship with a detainee; "Song One," in which Anne Hathaway stars as a woman retracing the life of her now-comatose brother; and "The Case Against 8," a behind-the-scenes look at the case to overturn California's ban on same-sex marriage.

The film festival runs from January 16 to 26.

From the film "Love Child." David Foox, courtesy of Sundance Institute