HotDocs ’15 – Day 4: Deep Web/Western

The creator of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, and his family.
The creator of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, and his family.

A common thread on this year’s HotDocs’ line-up is the number of films depicting the conflict between the law and modern life. Often, legislation is not speedy enough or lacks the tools to tackle grey areas related to technology and human behaviour.

Deep Web (USA, 2015): Director Alex Winter may be better known as Bill Preston from the Bill and Ted movies, but is also one of the few filmmakers able to deal with the dark corners of the web with enough knowledge to understand what he is doing.

At first sight, Winter’s stance in Deep Web is hard to sustain, if all the information you have on the subject comes from news magazines. According to the film, Silk Road (the online open market that became the symbol of the deep net) was actually a force for good until the FBI shut it down in 2013. Silk Road made drug transactions violence-free, and was never a haven for hitmen and child pornographers as we’ve been led to believe.

The documentary smartest move is to make the film about the alleged creator and administrator of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts. A brilliant libertarian, Ulbricht turned the marketplace into a platform for the right to privacy. Sure enough, Ross was declared guilty of trafficking, money laundering and hacking, yet secrecy and straight-up obstruction during the process point at powerful forces at play.

Deep Web keeps the eyes on the prize, outside a couple of detours to engage with the cypher-punk movement (deserving of a movie of its own). It may not engage the audience emotionally, but it’s pure brain candy. The narrator, you ask? Keanu Reeves, who else. Three and a half prairie dogs.

 Western (USA, 2015): Across the border between Texas and Mexico there are two mirror communities -Eagle Nest and Piedras Negras- who for decades maintained a close relationship. Cattle business benefited both economies and Rio Grande was more of a common ground than a border.

All that came crushing down when the cartels moved their operations to the neighbourhood. Violence began to seep into Piedras Negras, while the US government reacted by suspending cattle trading and putting a (fairly useless) fence in the riverbank.

There is a lot of artistry in Western. Instead of using the genre’s oldest tools –talking heads, graphs, archive footage-, directors Bill and Turner Ross employ a cinema verité approach. They let the narrative emerge organically through scenes of raw beauty. While brave, the strategy slows the story to a crawl. Western is also hurt by its main subjects, neither particularly articulate or compelling. Fans of Terrence Malick will eat this one up. Two and a half prairie dogs.

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.