The martyrdom of Kim Dotcom
Was he the internet messiah or just a very naughty boy? A new documentary tackles the contradictions of Kim Dotcom.
Is that cushion trying to send us a message? I know that sounds paranoid, but this is a story about paranoia.
Here is the scene. Controversial internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom is interviewed in his Auckland waterfront apartment in 2016. There is tasteful decor, natural light, sea views and directly behind the man himself, an upside down US flag on a cushion.
Given that the US was into its fifth long year of trying to extradite Dotcom to face trial on copyright and other charges, that shot seems like one of Dotcom's famous provocations – in your face, Uncle Sam. Or am I reading too much into it?
Annie Goldson, director of the documentary Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web, can't remember who art-directed the two-day interview, but thinks it was Dotcom himself. And she sees meaning in it too.
"I often think Kim is like an echo of a Hollywood star, emulating a lifestyle and some strange inverted love of America."
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Detailed, neutral and at times sympathetic, Goldson's documentary started to take shape in 2014 when Dotcom, already a folk hero and political martyr in New Zealand after the raid on his Coatesville mansion in 2012, made the ill-judged decision to enter politics. Does anyone remember Internet Mana? The shaky alliance between the techno-radicals of Dotcom's Internet Party and Mana's old school socialists crashed into the 2014 election campaign like a runaway train.
It climaxed at a political circus called the Moment of Truth. Dotcom flew investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald to Auckland and crossed live to free-speech heroes in hiding Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Five days before the election, the Auckland Town Hall was packed with activists and journalists who expected this stunt to topple the Government.
What went wrong? The campaign had revealed that this was personal for Dotcom, as though he and then-Prime Minister John Key were Pacino and De Niro in Heat. Dotcom claimed he had a smoking gun, in the form of an email from Warner Bros that purported to show that Key was in on a deep conspiracy with Hollywood to trap Dotcom.
The email read in part: "We had a really good meeting with the Prime Minister. He's a fan and we're getting what we came for ... John Key told me in private that they are granting Dotcom residency despite pushback from officials about his criminal past."
No one bought it. It looked like a fake and the Moment of Truth collapsed like a wet cake. In his interview in the documentary, Dotcom still hangs onto the belief that the email was real. Former Internet Party leader Laila Harre told The Spinoff this year that she also remains open to it being authentic. And what does Goldson herself think?
"I'm reasonably open-minded about it, actually. But one thing I do think is it seems to have rather too much perfect information in it. It feels like a really clear narrative."
It sure does. But if it was fake, who faked it? Dotcom himself or some other hacker?
Goldson was reminded of this recently when Dotcom suddenly popped up in the middle of a wild conspiracy theory about Seth Rich, a Democratic Party staffer who was killed during a robbery in 2016. The theory argues that he leaked documents to Wikileaks and paid with his life.
Dotcom assured Fox News host Sean Hannity that he could prove the Wikileaks connection was real. But Fox suddenly retracted the story and Dotcom backed down.
"It feels like an echo of the Moment of Truth for me," Goldson says. "He was going to reveal all and then stepped back."
On election night in 2014, when it was clear Internet Mana had failed, Dotcom blamed himself and his toxic brand, and largely disappeared from public life. Now he is reclusive in his luxury pad, separated from his wife Mona (their story is a charming romantic interlude in the film). After two years of negotiations, Dotcom agreed to an interview and offered access to his archives, including home movies of family life in Coatesville before everything soured.
How did Goldson find him, at a personal level?
"We had very interesting conversations and he was always courteous to me. He's got a strong streak in his personality that I saw from time to time. He's certainly someone who can exercise power."
Goldson is an independent documentary maker with a significant body of work behind her (Brother Number One, Punitive Damage, Georgie Girl) and an academic role at the University of Auckland and Dotcom is used to exercising control over his inner circle. Yes, some "vigorous debates" and tense discussions took place.
Returning to the meaningful cushion for a moment, the biography that Goldson constructs suggests someone who always yearned to be famous. He played up the Dr Evil role but long before he was even called Dotcom, the 20-year-old Kim Schmitz was turning up to a Munich nightclub in a flash white suit, posing as though he had already made it.
One of Goldson's German sources talks about a "baffling falsehood" that seemed "totally absurd". It was the classic Jay Gatsby myth, the self-invented phony. Even arrests were good for business – the notorious hacker could rebrand as a security consultant. In the background there was a tough childhood with a violent alcoholic father.
Is there a sense that Dotcom has become caught in the persona he cultivated? That his life became a movie, just not the movie he wanted to star in?
"There is definitely a persona," Goldson says. "I don't like to get too psychologising but you can see, given his background, why he chose the lifestyle he did. To some degree, it feels like artifice. He is quite thoughtful to talk to. He's mild-mannered and listens carefully. He doesn't drink alcohol."
There are good interviews in the film, shedding light on complex areas of freedom and copyright. Greenwald is there. The musician Moby is there. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is there. US technology journalist Greg Sandoval calls Dotcom "a PR genius". Movie producer turned scholar Jonathan Taplin argues that "he's a criminal ... he should be in jail".
No one can agree on Dotcom and the film won't change that. It is not just his personal style that provokes strong opinions. Instead, as Goldson notes, there is something about these internet guys, "these individuals" we have created.
US academic Aram Sinnreich compares them to oil barons in a relatively unregulated wild west. Think of Dotcom and Assange and, more recently, Peter Thiel. What do they have in common? They are transnational, mostly apolitical, loosely libertarian. They represent a different, more confusing world to come.
"The interesting thing about Kim is that he attracted such a strange mixture of contradictory bedfellows," Goldson says. "You had the aspirational business types. You had the Left-wing anti-spying types and then you had the youth who liked his anarchist backstory."
That blurring of political lines continues overseas. Is it normal to see self-styled freedom fighters like Dotcom and Assange aligning themselves with US President Donald Trump and his favoured broadcaster, Fox News? Or has the world gone mad?
"The whole American political system is now so topsy turvy," Goldson agrees. "I feel myself drawn to supporting the FBI, which I've never done before. Someone like [sacked FBI director] James Comey starts to seem like the good guy. I know a lot about the history of the FBI because I worked on a series of projects in the US on Cointelpro, which was like the early version of Five Eyes."
Who do you back when the anti-surveillance people are also the pro-Trump people? But there is a degree of opportunism and personal animus involved. Neither Assange nor Dotcom were big fans of Hillary Clinton.
Goldson's documentary, made with the assistance of around $800,000 of New Zealand Film Commission money, had its premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Texas in March. "He is a braggart and a publicity hound who fancies himself Christ-on-the-bloody-cross," Variety's reviewer wrote of Dotcom in a mostly positive review.
Gravitas Ventures has bought the US and foreign sales rights. Soon the whole world will see Dotcom and Key sweat as they face off in Parliament or Pam Corkery lose it spectacularly at some political journalists on the campaign trail. New Zealand, such a quaint place.
Ahead of all that, the local premiere is at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland on July 29. It will be a Saturday afternoon. Goldson will be there.
As for Dotcom, he has been sent an invitation as well but Goldson hasn't heard back. The flamboyant Dotcom of old would have gone, probably with an entourage. But the new, more reclusive Dotcom? Maybe not.
Screenings of Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web in other centres follow the July 29 premiere at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland. For more information go to nziff.co.nz.