SXSW 2014: Before I Disappear & The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Before I Disappear
Shawn Christensen converts his Academy Award winning short film featuring a man who discovers his motivation to stay alive into a full feature film with Before I Disappear. Richie (Christensen) is asked to turn the other way when a woman is found dead on the floor of a bathroom from a heroin overdose. Feeling a stronger connection to her than any living person in his life, Richie considers this to be the final straw of his own miserable life. But as he sits in a bathtub filled with his own blood, a phone call interrupts his attempted suicide. On the other line is his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum) begging him to watch her daughter niece (Fatima Ptacek) Sophia.
Richie reluctantly agrees to look after Sophia for the night, but as the night progresses he realizes that this opportunity for him to actually do something worthwhile in his life. There are other subplots in the film involving Richie owing a debt to a mysterious man and befriending the boyfriend of the dead woman he found in the beginning, but these developments to not add much to enhance the central narrative. Just as she does in the short film, Ptacek steals the show with her sassy, but smart role as the pivotal component that turns Richie’s life around. It’s difficult to say if Before I Disappear generates the same level of heartfelt emotions that the short film it was based from did, however, fans of the source material are likely to at least appreciate this extension.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Through the abundant use of early home videos, Brian Knappenberger’s documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz shows that Aaron Swartz was somewhat of a prodigy at an early age when he begins to recite the alphabet and read. Going up on computers at a young age, Swartz effortlessly learned how to write programming languages and soon become obsessed with them. Before he finished high school, Swartz built an open-access encyclopedia that allowed others to add and edit entries. This sounds very similar to the idea behind the 5th most visited website on the planet, Wikipedia. Though Swartz wrote his own version years before Wikipedia was even launched. Other impressive technology accolades in his life include helping develop RSS, co-founding Reddit, and launching Creative Commons.
Swartz had always been a programming wunderkind, but alongside his technical abilities was his enthusiastic philosophy that information should be accessible by the public. He eventually became a political hacktivist and wrote a script that would automatically download all of the academic journal articles from JSTOR that MIT had access to. The FBI took notice and later outrageously charged him with 13 counts of felony and a fine of up to $1 million.
It was nice to see the documentary not dwelling on the actual details of Swartz’s suicide and instead keeping the focus on the impact of death on everyone around him. Occasionally the film meanders on some of the topics it brings up, specifically when it went into more detail surrounding the SOPA bill than it needed.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking that a man who believed information should be free would be bullied by the government just to be made an example of, ultimately leading him to take his own life. Through Aaron Swartz’s tragic but inspiring story, The Internet’s Own Boy delivers the important message of just how critical access to knowledge is, and that by limiting our access, it limits our ability to learn, evolve, and create. And that’s a message worth listening to.