'The New Radical': Inside the Year's Most Controversial Doc
In addition to stirring up debate on the nature of power and privacy, The New Radical questions what a documentary film should be.
“Certain subjects make people very uncomfortable,” filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough tells No Film School. “They would rather not deal with it, or if they're going to deal with it, they want you to spell out these easy answers for them. I don't have any easy answers, and I don't think they exist.”
Lough's new film follows controversial figures Cody Wilson, the creator of an unserialized 3D-printed gun, and Amir Taaki, a possible founder of Bitcoin (whose inventors have yet to be publicly identified), as they articulate ideologies that lead to legal battles with the U.S. Government and Taaki taking off to fight ISIS.
"I'm most concerned for the safety of my subjects, whether I agree with them or not politically."
There’s one aspect of the film that's generating a particular controversy, and that comes from the filmmaking itself. The filmmaker doesn't shy away from objectivity. A Los Angeles Times critic recently called Lough's approach "irresponsible," to which Lough fired back last week that the point of a documentary is not to "take a stance."
Sitting in a Sundance screening of the film earlier this year, I can vouch for the palpable responses to Lough's style; hissing, wild cheers, and insults were exchanged between audience members. It made me uncomfortable, but it was also exciting. (You can watch a clip from the contentious Q&A, where David Talbot, founder of Salon, spars with Cody Wilson on “creating a dystopian future.")
Adam Bhala Lough spoke with No Film School, giving the inside scoop on how to have video chats with hackers, the best ways to protect your subjects, and how to make a film that's a lightning rod of discussion in a politically polarized climate.
No Film School: Given the world of internet radicals and crypto-anarchists, how did you choose Cody and Amir as your two main subjects? How did you get them to participate?
Adam Bhala Lough: I had heard Cody giving an interview on NPR. This was very early on in his process of making the 3D printed gun, and he was crowdfunding the idea on Indiegogo. The Indiegogo page had been taken down; it got flagged. That caused a lot of controversy because it was like, "Oh, wait a second, are we going to start taking down crowdfunding pages for stuff we don't like?" When I heard him on NPR, I was like, "Oh shit, I have to go meet this guy." I hit him up. He had seen my Lil Wayne documentary, The Carter, and he was a big fan. That helped.
I asked if we could do a test shoot, to see if it would work out, and that process consists of the feeling out of the subject or subjects. It's half how they are on camera (are they awkward or are they cool?) and half how they are off camera (are they easy to deal with/are they good people?) He passed with flying colors.
During that test shoot, I discovered Amir Taaki. I had no idea who Amir was. I'd never heard of him. I didn't even know Cody was into Bitcoin. I thought I was doing a project that was going to be more about gun control. On the last morning I was there, Cody was like, "I've got to get on this Skype call with a bunch of hackers who live in a squat in Europe." I'm like, "What's that about?" He's like, "Well, I'm developing this wallet, this Bitcoin wallet. It's a dark wallet that will hide your transactions..."
"There were rumors that Amir was Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym for the creator of Bitcoin."
I heard Amir on the Skype call with all these hackers, and he was the only one who was remotely interesting. In fact, he really jumped off the laptop, as it were. He had this childlike enthusiasm and was so excited about everything that was happening and the part he was doing. It was electric. You could tell this was a guy full of life.
After the call, Cody walked me through the history of Amir. He was already a micro-celebrity within the Bitcoin space, as he had been there since the birth of Bitcoin. There were even rumors that Amir was Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym for the creator (or creators) of Bitcoin. We actually don't know who the people are. We may never know. They go by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto.
I asked Cody to make an introduction, and it took about six months for me to actually get through to Amir. Cody had vouched for me, and that's how they became central characters in the film.
NFS: After that fairly long process, what was production like? Did you choose what you wanted to capture ahead of time, or did you just hang with Cody and Amir all the time?
Lough: I began filming this project four years and two months ago. If I'm remembering correctly, I shot, edited, and released two other feature documentaries while I was making this one. I was bouncing around, keeping up a relationship with the characters and checking in with them. There may be something I'll miss, but I try to be there for their lives' big moments, even if those moments don't necessarily make for good film. Sometimes it's the most mundane moments that end up in the film.
"We didn't know where he was. We even thought he may be dead."
With Amir, it's interesting because we had filmed for three years, and I'd say, 75% of Amir's plotline in The New Radical was shot in two days. Amir disappeared through production for almost 18 months. We didn't know where he was. We thought he may be dead.
When he later reappeared, we found out that he had gone to Syria to fight with the YPG. When he came back to the UK, he was immediately arrested on suspicion of acts of terrorism. They took his devices. While he had a couple of hard drives and a camera, they were all encrypted and he couldn't remember the passwords.
[The British government] was attempting to decrypt the devices for evidence, and released Amir on house arrest to his mom's house. He was under constant surveillance, but his sister told me to come and film. We flew out there and got the vast majority of his storyline in those two days. It was really lucky. We got the interview with Julian Assange on that same trip. That's why I tell filmmakers that a lot of it is about maintenance. You can can wait around for four years, and then in a week, you get a huge windfall.
NFS: Since both your subjects are either on government watch lists or under investigation, did you need to adapt your production for their security and privacy?
Lough: In terms of security, this was a very precarious operation. We were constantly having to ship drives ahead of ourselves so that they weren't intercepted at the border. I was reading a lot of scary stories about journalists coming back from Syria and having their laptops taken from them at the border, just doing normal recording. I was very concerned. We did have a hard drive stolen in the mail, as a matter of fact. There was a hard drive that was shipped over to me from the UK. The box arrived on my doorstep sealed shut. When I opened it, it was empty. My local crew guy swore up and down that he had put the hard drive in the box and sealed it up. In his defense, the box looked like it had been re-taped. Luckily he still had the footage and was able to send it to me via a secure link.
"Until this day, all the footage and material is under encryption and would never be shared."
Amir's lawyer was very upset at me for filming because he was afraid that anything Amir said on camera might incriminate him. The lawyer was afraid that the authorities would just take our cameras as we were walking down the street. That didn't happen, but I understand he was looking out for his client. Until this day, all the footage and material is under encryption and would never be shared. This is something that I take extremely seriously. They'd need serious amounts of warrants, and I would never give it up either. I would forget all those passwords myself.
NFS: Passwords are easy to forget.
Lough: I'm most concerned for the safety and well-being of my subjects, whether I politically agree with them or not. Everybody around me, including my producers, were really terrific about jumping through hoops to secure everything, and even though it was a pain in the arse (and it did cost a lot of money), I couldn't sleep at night if something had happened to that footage.
NFS: In terms of the ideologies your film presents, what was the hope regarding audience reaction?
Lough: I intended the film to be a lightning rod of discussion about the topics. I think that they're clearly important topics that are controversial and complex. For example, during production, the San Bernardino massacre happened. The FBI was unable to unencrypt the shooter’s phone. I’m all for strong encryption, but I also don’t want strong encryption leading to investigators not being able to do their job when it comes to something like a mass shooting, for example. I'm very torn on that issue, personally, and I think a lot of people are.
I think in the beginning, people didn't really have an understanding of the idea of encryption. They just thought, "Well shouldn't the government, the FBI and the police, be able to just look into my phone whenever they want? I don't have anything to hide.” We’re seeing that may be a naïve way to think. Why do you have locks on your front door, and shades on your windows? You don't want everyone to be able to access everything of yours at all times. If you don't have these strong encryptions, it's not just the government that can get into your devices, but also hackers and corporations that want to know what you're buying.
"My intention is to say, 'Hey, look at this. Look over here. Do you see what is happening?'"
There’s also the gun control issue. Like a lot of people, I see a problem in this country. But if Cody and his people accomplish what they intend to do, which is to destroy gun control entirely though open-source technology, then all the legislation will be superseded in an instant by the Cody Wilson technology, the DIY technology. My intention is to say, "Hey, look at this. Look over here. Do you see what is happening?" The people in the film are super young. Cody was 24 when we started. How are we going to deal with that? I don't have the answers, but I wanted to ask the questions.
NFS: What would your advice be for filmmakers wanting to tackle something that's controversial, but not necessarily in a didactic way. What would your advice be for them?
Lough: Do what's natural and what you like to watch. I like to watch films that allow me to make my own decisions on what I'm seeing, ones that don't insult my intelligence. That's just me. Some people look at it like, “This is how I feel about this topic, and I just want to watch something that tells me that I'm right about my opinion.” I can't stand films like that, even when they come from a perspective of something I believe in, right? So I would say, be the filmmaker who strives to make an objective film, and to be that in our current political climate, one that's so divided.
I can offer some practical advice, which is to keep a small crew and be light on your feet. Treat your subjects with respect and care. Even if you don't like them, even if you don't like their perspectives or their politics, still be kind to people because they're giving you their time. That's worth more than money. Get as close as possible to people, and by that, I mean, get close with the camera, but also emotionally close to the people you're documenting. Be super patient.
I made a breakthrough as a filmmaker on my Lil Wayne documentary. Wayne forced me to take the biggest Zen approach to filmmaking because I would literally sit in a hotel room for days, waiting for him to say that we could film. We sat in a New Jersey hotel room for two days, waiting to film. And I don't think I'll ever make a film that I like better than that film. It's because I was patient. You have to be patient. If you're forcing things to happen, you're going to lose all your hair, and you're going to make a shit film.