Alex Winter: Bitcoin. Activism. Frank Zappa

July 3, 2019
As the internet breaks with excitement over Bill & Ted Face the Music, one of its stars, Alex Winter (Bill) continues his passion for documentary making and technology, with the latest, Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, set to premiere in Melbourne this month.

Narrated by Rosario Dawson, Trust Machine investigates how blockchain technology, which allows digital information to be shared but not copied, and underpins most digital currency, could help in the fight against income equality and world hunger. It feels like a vast topic to cover but speaking to Winter he doesn’t see any issue.

“No, I wasn’t concerned about the complexity [of the topic] as I knew I would be focusing on the people at the heart of this story and not the technical specifics,” Winter explains. “The people and their motives, whether good or ill, are totally understandable to any audience.”

People like Lauri Love, a British activist charged with stealing data from US Government computers. Love was alleged to have been involved in a series of online protests that followed soon after the death of Aaron Schwartz, another hacker whose story was told in The Internet’s Own Boy. Love is one of several talking heads Winter interviews throughout the film. How does he feel that Love has been treated?

“I’ve been following Lauri’s case since he was first charged,” Winter says. “It’s a very important case and exemplifies the over-prosecution of supposed computer crimes by the US government. Hopefully that hard line stance is beginning to soften.”

The documentary itself was born out of what Winter describes as ‘a kind of crypto frenzy’, when the general public began to latch onto the idea of bitcoin and the blockchain community. Having followed technology’s evolution for over 20 years, Winter saw the potential for a story. However, despite finding the good in the technology, he’s not adverse to admitting to some scepticism.

“I’m hopeful that good things will genuinely grow from cryptocurrencies,” Winters admits. “But sceptical because of the hype and the many obstacles; from government clamp downs to energy consumption and infighting amongst this community.”

Winter’s last two technology focused documentaries were Deepweb and Downloaded. As any good sci-fi film will tell you, technology is constantly evolving. The next great device will be tomorrow’s landfill, whilst the future Facebook is already yesterday’s Myspace. With this speed of technological advancement, is there anything shooting over the horizon that Winter is looking to tackle?

“I would be curious to see where we are in five years in many areas; blockchain, climate control, AI, robotics, genetics,” Winter ponders. “I can see any number of stories to address once the dust has settled a bit. And given how quickly things are moving I think five years will produce great change.”

As Trust Machine lands on Australian soil, Winter already has two documentaries lined up. First up is The Panama Papers, released in the US last November, which dissects the leaking of over 11 million documents revealing the offshore accounts of the rich and the famous.

The Panama Papers was an extremely challenging documentary, that also involved issues I have history with: data leaks, computer-based networks, privacy and encryption,” Winters explains. “It’s not a technology doc, it’s really about journalism, but it’s a very important story for our current moment, which is fraught for journalists and those who want to convey the truth.”

Seemingly moving as far away from that kind of topic as possible, Winter is also currently putting together Zappa, a portrait about musician and activist Frank Zappa.

Zappa is an outgrowth of many of the themes in previous docs, including Panama Papers and Trust Machine,” Winter says. “Zappa was a musical genius, and also a modernist, extremely technologically savvy and a political activist and reformer. It’s a retroactive story, but Zappa was such a forward-thinking individual that it doesn’t feel ‘historical’, it feels immediate.”

Returning to Trust Machine, which might be seen by an outsider as being an incredibly dense topic to navigate, we ask Winter to extrapolate what he would like his audience to take from the documentary.

“I don’t really have a simple takeaway,” Winters admits, “as it’s a complex and paradoxical world, and we lean into the contradictions. I hope more than anything that audiences feel they watched a satisfying and well told story.”

Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Sunday July 21, 6.15pm at Cinema Nova


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