That which we call a documentary….

The story of Aaron Swartz is undeniably heart-wrenching and tragic. Unfortunately, I know firsthand the confusing mixture of grief, shock, hurt, and even anger experienced by the love ones of those who have felt compelled to take their own lives — for whatever reason. There is no feeling like knowing that someone in your life was in that kind of pain and you didn’t know or didn’t do anything about it.

Anyone who has seen the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz not only knows the story but has also seen these emotions and perhaps even felt them secondhand through the many interviews with Aaron’s loved ones interspersed with home videos of toddler Aaron dancing around and reading storybooks. Merriam-Webster defines the term documentary as “being or consisting of documents : contained or certified in writing” and cites it as being a synonym for words like factual and objective. While I do sympathize wholeheartedly with the traumatic experiences of Aaron and his loved ones, I am inclined (as the self-proclaimed scholar that I am, knowing full well that I have no real right to do so) to take issue with this entirely subjective documentary.

Here’s why I don’t.

This documentary has a purpose. It was designed to evoke emotions and to make people really stop and think about the issues that Aaron Swartz felt so passionately about — it’s part of continuing his legacy! It simply isn’t enough just to inform viewers that there was a guy facing some legal repercussions for this internet thing he cared a lot about and then he took his own life. That doesn’t cut it! What people need to know is exactly what Aaron fought so hard for everyone to know: that the government is limiting our access to resources which should be free to everyone, and they want to limit what we can do on the internet! This documentary is designed to spark interest in these issues and to make people care about them even just a little bit. It is designed to educate people on issues that they probably (as I didn’t) don’t know anything at all about. It serves its purpose, and for that I can only commend it and be grateful that I now have information that I didn’t have before — and isn’t that all Aaron was trying to give us?


So there it is. So what if it doesn’t fit the “formal” definition of a documentary? As I believe Shakespeare would agree, “What’s in a name?” That which we call a documentary by any other name would inform as effectively.

Image: “Boston Wiki Meetup” by Sage Ross is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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