The Arty Semite

Filming the Wives of Bali

By Dorri Olds

Courtesy of Elemental Productions

Filmmaker Robert Lemelson’s “Bitter Honey” is a documentary about polygamy and violence towards women in Bali, Indonesia. Lemelson filmed three families — three husbands, 17 wives and 20 children — over a seven-year period. Many were tricked into being co-wives and are psychologically manipulated and physically abused by their unfaithful and often cruel husbands once they are married. Feeling trapped for economic and cultural reasons, they remain with their husbands despite their grim conditions. It is fascinating and heartbreaking to watch them open up to Lemelson about their ongoing plight: their fear and sadness.

Lemelson, 53, has been making documentary films in Indonesia for two decades. The New Jersey native is also a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a specialty in Southeast Asian studies, psychological anthropology and transcultural psychiatry. He was a Fulbright scholar in Indonesia and holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in anthropology from University of Califaronia, Los Angeles.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with him in New York City, at the Clinton Global Initiative, with which he has been involved for the last 5 years.

Dorri Olds: How did a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey end up in Indonesia?

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Hit Man to Las Vegas Rabbi in 'Gangsterland'

By Michael Kaminer

David Cohen’s the new rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Las Vegas. He’s a learned guy who drops pearls of Torah wisdom for admiring congregants. And he’s overseeing both preschool and funerals for the growing shul.

Oh, Rabbi Cohen’s also Sal Cupertine, a ruthless Chicago mafia hit man who’s had to assume a new identity after getting set up for the murder of FBI agents. And in Tod Goldberg’s laugh-while-you-cringe new novel “Gangsterland,” he’s one of the most compelling, and repulsive, crime-fiction protagonists in a long time.

The director of an MFA writing program at University of California-Riverside’s Palm Desert campus, Goldberg’s been a prolific novelist and story writer, with a raft of compulsively readable paperbacks based on USA Network’s hit series “Burn Notice” under his belt as well.

The Forward caught up with Goldberg from his office.

Michael Kaminer: David Cohen is a mask for Sal Cupertine, but you also get the feeling the new identity has changed Sal for real. Did you want the reader to walk away with a sense of awe around the transformative power of the Talmud and Midrash? Or was the character’s disguise just a device?

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When Investigative Reporting Turns Deadly

By Dorri Olds

Writer Peter Landesman seems the only good choice to have written “Kill the Messenger.” The movie is about Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) who broke the story that the CIA, during the Reagan administration, was part of a conspiracy that looked away while gobs of cocaine was smuggled into the U.S. and the money from drug sales funded weapons for the rebel forces in Nicaragua. The influx of coke was also at the root of the 1980s crack epidemic.

In an almost parallel universe, Landesman wrote an expose for The New York Times magazine in 2004 called “The Girls Next Door” about the horrors of America’s sex trade. Like Webb, Landesman was accused of inaccurate reporting and wild exaggerations and had to fight for his reputation.

Gary Webb died in 2004. His life had been destroyed. He’d suffered depression, substance abuse, lost his marriage, his career, his credibility and then his life. His death was ruled a suicide. But how do you shoot yourself in the head twice?

The Forward caught up with Landesman to talk about the movie and the dangers inherent in uncovering “stories that are too true to tell.”

Dorri Olds: Did writing the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger” hit close to your own experiences?

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Why Judd Hirsch Almost Turned Down ‘Taxi’

By Curt Schleier

Judd Hirsch has packed a lot of success into his 79 years on the planet. He is of course known as Alex Rieger, cabbie extraordinaire in the long-running television sitcom “Taxi.” The role earned him four Emmy nominations and two wins.

He’s also starred in a number of other successful series, including “Dear John” and, more recently, “Numb3rs.”

That’s only television. He’s appeared in 20 feature films, ranging from his role as a psychologist in “Ordinary People” (Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor) to playing himself in “The Muppets,” which garnered him no awards but the affection of thousands of young people.

Then there is his true love, theater. He’s appeared in three Broadway productions, was nominated for three Tony Awards as best actor in a play and won two — for “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations With My Father.”

Hirsch spoke to the Forward about his latest project, the new ABC series “Forever,” how he almost didn’t want to take “Taxi” and why he’s still doing the grind of a TV show at age 79.

Curt Schleier: Getting ready for this interview, I was taken aback by how much you’d done and how much I’d forgotten. What a career! What’s your reaction to my ignorance?

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Ben Feldman on 'Mad Men,' Playing Jews, and Why He Never Had a Bar Mitzvah

By Curt Schleier

Photo: Trae Patton/NBC

The last time we saw Ben Feldman, he’d just cut off one of his nipples. Now, he’s head-over-heels in love with a girl he spied — but never met — years earlier at a rock concert.

Perhaps an explanation is in order.

For the last three seasons, Feldman has played Michael Ginsberg, the somewhat acerbic, somewhat crazy Jewish copywriter on “Mad Men.” Ginsberg chose a most unusual way to declare his love for a co-worker.

Starting October 2 (and every Thursday forever thereafter, he hopes), he’s Adam Laughlin on “A to Z,” the besotted bachelor who believes in destiny and true love and a more traditional approach to wooing. The object of his affection is Zelda Vasco (Cristin Milioti), an attorney whose hippie, multi-partner mother soured her on the idea of romance.

The show’s pilot, at least, is funny and sweet and if nothing else an antidote to television zombies. It is also more than a little reminiscent of “(500) Days of Summer,” a similarly themed romance that at least in the cinema ended badly.

According to the voiceover here though, Andrew and Zelda go out for “eight months, three weeks, five days and one hour.” After winning kudos for her role in the Broadway musical “Once,” Miloti went on to become the title character in “How I Met Your Mother,” an issue that took nine seasons to resolve. So it may take a while to find out what the end of that near nine-month period has to offer.

In the meantime, Feldman spoke to the Forward about “the one,” defending a Jewish character’s right to be a little nuts, and going all-in on a bar mitzvah or not having one at all.

Curt Schleier: Do you believe in “the one”?

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Conversations With Ed Koch

By Curt Schleier

That Neil Barsky selected Ed Koch as the subject of his first film was far from an accident. Barsky spent his formative years in New York during Koch’s mayoralty (1978-1989), both as a high school student and later as a journalist.

The city was in the midst of desperate times. Crime was rampant and the Big Apple was running out of cash and time. Koch ran as a “liberal with sanity” on a law and order platform shortly after the 1977 blackout and ensuing riots; he easily defeated a passel of more liberal Democrats (Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, among them) for his party’s nomination and then won the election handily.

Koch was brash and combative in a New York City kind of way — at least in the way New Yorkers like to think of themselves. Barsky is a former journalist — he wrote for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News — and he comes to filmmaking by a circuitous route. He ran a hedge fund, Alson Partners, named for his children, Alexandra and Davidson, but “retired from the hedge fund world” in 2009 when the market collapsed. After a brief stint teaching college-level economics, he self financed “Koch,” his first foray into the world of documentaries. The movie opened to near unanimous praise last year and will be broadcast September as part of POV’s 27th season on PBS.

Barsky spoke to the Forward about his life journey, why there was a time when Koch refused to speak to him and the Yiddishkeit in his life.

Curt Schleier: How did you go from hedge fund entrepreneur to filmmaker?

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Forging Art for Fun and Philanthropy

By Dorri Olds

Art forger Mark Landis is the subject of the documentary “Art and Craft,” directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker. The film focuses on Landis’s history of art forgeries and the process he went through to create and donate them. The film also features Matthew Leininger, a museum registrar from Cincinnati who discovered the fakes and made it his mission to track down and stop Landis.

At the age of 17, Landis took the death of his father very hard. He was sent to a mental hospital for treatment and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later he took art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked on repairing damaged paintings. He bought an art gallery but it went bust. At 30, he went back to live with his mother.

In an attempt to honor his father and please his mother, Landis donated a Maynard Dixon painting he’d copied to a California museum. After that went well, he continued to paint dupes and donated them to 60 museums over a 20-year period. Most times he approached the museums impersonating a priest.

Landis said, “I liked being a priest and being kind to people. I remember once I was at a bus station and saw a family who had everything they owned tied up in boxes so I watched all their things for them when they wanted to go off and do something. Then, when they came back I gave them a blessing and sent them on their way. I’ve also comforted people at airports, with marital problems.”

In 2007, Landis offered a few paintings to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. The museum’s registrar, Matthew Leininger, investigated the pieces and discovered that one of the paintings had already been donated to the SCAD Museum of Art. Leininger dug deeper and found out that Landis had tricked more than 60 museums in 20 different states. It became Leininger’s mission to stop Landis from deceiving museums. Landis did not sell any of the paintings, so he has never faced legal charges for the fakes.

We talked to directors Cullman and Grausman about meeting Mark Landis, authenticity in art, and what will be in the DVD extras.

Dorri Olds: How did this project begin?

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How Isabel Rose Went From Acting to Writing to Music

By Curt Schleier

The first song on Isabel Rose’s new CD is “Lot of Livin’ To Do,” an especially appropriate choice. She has already packed a lot of living into her, uh, years on planet Earth.

“I don’t want to distract people,” Rose said about her age. In a phone interview with the Forward, she added, “I prefer they not focus on whether I look good for my age. That is too much of a preoccupation, too much of a distraction from a person’s work.”

As it happens, Rose has an extremely lengthy and varied body of work for a person of any age. She acted at the Williamstown Theater Festival, landing a main stage production just weeks out of school; she’s written a best-selling novel (“The J.A.P. Chronicles”) that she subsequently turned into an off-Broadway one-woman musical; she wrote the screenplay and starred in an independent film (“Anything But Love”); and, now, her new album of standards, “Trouble in Paradise,” which drops September 16.

Rose spoke to the Forward about her family — she’s the scion of the wealthy, influential and charitable New York real estate clan — about Friday night Jewish song fests, and what she wants to do when she grows up.

Curt Schleier: I read somewhere that your family prefers a low profile and wasn’t thrilled with your career choice.

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Israel Horovitz on Paris and the Movies

By Curt Schleier

Israel Horovitz is the author of over 70 produced plays, most famously “Lebensraum,” his “Fountain Pen” trilogy, and “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” But, as he explains, “I was turning 75 and I thought that would scare the hell out of me.”

The “that” that he refers to is directing the film version of “My Old Lady.” One of his plays, “North Shore Fish,” was filmed in 1997. He’s written original screenplays. And he’s directed a documentary that ran on Bravo. But this is first time he’s taken on all the forms at once.

“My Old Lady” is set in France, where Horovitz spends much time. He is kind of a literary Jerry Lewis, whose work is appreciated and much honored there, including the recent award of a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Here, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a down-on-his luck New Yorker, inherits a lavish Paris apartment from his estranged father. He intends to sell it, but discovers he has tenants, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who can block the sale under a complicated French real estate law known as viager.

With nowhere else to go, Mathias moves in as well, and uncovers secrets about his family and theirs. The film is funny, intense, romantic, and the principal actors are exceptionally well cast.

Horovitz spoke to the Forward about how the film came about, the anti-Semitism he faced growing up and why some of his children were raised secular and some Jewish.

Curt Schleier: When you write, do you think of your plays cinematically?

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Leonard Maltin's Last Movie Guide

By Curt Schleier

The word is out. Leonard Maltin’s annual movie guide has fallen into what, in Hollywood speak, would be called “developmental hell.” First published in 1969 and annually since 1986, the new 2015 edition is its last. Like newspapers and other print media, it has fallen victim to the Internet, where much of the information is readily available, easily accessible and free.

The story behind the series is probably more interesting than the average “Transformers” film, however. Maltin was a high school student who published a fanzine. An English teacher impressed with his work put him in touch with a publisher, who was similarly awed.

The first edition of was to become “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” was called simply “TV Movies.” It “is a terrible title,” Maltin said in a telephone interview. “A competitor used up a better title, “Movies on TV.” It was actually Maltin’s suggestions for improving that book that convinced the publisher to sign the high school senior.

“I suggested adding a more extensive cast list, the director’s name, and indicating if it was in color or black and white, which was more important then.”

Maltin spoke to the Forward about being a high school nerd, his favorite (and least favorite) films, and davening with Theodore Bikel.

Curt Schleier: Were you a nerd in high school?

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Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”

One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.

Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?

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The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.

Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?

Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.

Do you mean she had stage fright?

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Lenny Abrahamson, Ireland's 'Third Most Famous Jew'

By Curt Schleier

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.

Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.

“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.

It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”

Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.

Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?

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Naomi Foner on 'Very Good Girls' and Her Famous Children

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

Screenwriter Naomi Foner was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her original screenplay for “Running on Empty.” She also wrote other high-profile projects such as “Losing Isaiah” and “Bee Season.” So you’d think the Hollywood establishment would rush to sign on for “Very Good Girls,” her latest script.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

“I wrote this a long time ago, and it’s been in my drawer for many years,” she told the Forward in a telephone interview.

In some ways, it’s not surprising. The film is about two best friends, Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), who pledge to lose their virginity before they leave for college. Problems arise when they fall for the same guy and he prefers one over the other.

Though it sounds on the surface a lot like typical summer fare, it is an intelligent, affecting movie about friendship, honesty and family. Foner spoke to the Forward about getting the film made, how her grandfather used to write to the Forverts for advice on fishing and how proud she is of her children, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Curt Schleier: I was really disappointed the other day. I went to McDonald’s and asked them for Lily and Gerry action figures. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t understand. Did you actually make a summer movie without major tie-ins?

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When Music Is the Best Medicine

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

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When Having It All Is Too Much

By Curt Schleier

Director Kevin Asch’s film, “Affluenza,” is about a “disease” that seems to strike people with too much money and too much time but not enough of a moral compass to guide them. Its symptoms are a sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.

The movie is set in Great Gatsby country, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where an aspiring photographer, Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, moves in with his aunt and uncle while he applies to college in Manhattan. It is his first exposure to a world seemingly without limits on both wealth and behavior — until the financial crisis hits.

“Affluenza” is an extremely personal film for Asch, 38, who grew up in that milieu. For him, the movie is as much an exercise in therapy as in filmmaking. He spoke to the Forward about the trials of his own Long Island upbringing, how film helped him through his alienation, and why he can now move on.

Curt Schleier: The production notes say growing up you were “grappling with personal questions about my family shattering and how growing up in an affluent community led to such great expectations and such pressures.” Can you give us some more details?

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A Survivor Remembers Her Japanese Savior

By Dorri Olds

September 1 will mark 75 years since World War II began. Most likely you don’t know the story of one brave man who saved 6,000 lives. When Polish Jews fled persecution, many arrived in independent Lithuania. But as the German army pushed across Europe in the summer of 1940, foreign embassies were ordered to close. While other diplomats turned their backs on the Jewish refugees, one honorable diplomat requested a month-long extension so that he could issue visas that would allow Jews to travel across European Russia and Siberia to Japan. The man was Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

“The Rescuers,” by award-winning filmmaker Michael King, focuses on Sugihara and 12 additional unsung Holocaust heroes who risked their lives to help tens of thousands of Jews flee to safety. By doing what he thought was right, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign office for going against the orders of the Japanese government. He lost his pension and had to work menial jobs the rest of his life.

King’s “The Rescuers” stars renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert; Stephanie Nyombayire, an anti-genocide activist who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and a handful of survivors. One survivor in the film is Sylvia Smoller Austerer, who agreed to an exclusive interview for the Forward. She is alive today, thanks to Sugihara making it possible for her to escape Poland at age 7.

The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Austerer and spoke to her about the experience.

Dorri Olds: You’ve said, “What on earth made Sugihara do it?” Can you expand on that?

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How Lee Grant Recovered From the Blacklist

By Curt Schleier

“Some working actors lost the best years of their lives and don’t know why.” Those words were written by actress/director Lee Grant in her new memoir, “I Said Yes To Everything.” And she should know. She was one of them.

Grant was the “surprise discovery” of the 1950 Broadway season for her role in “Detective Story.” Shortly afterwards, she was discovered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a dozen years, from 1952 to 1964 — essentially what could have been the prime of her career — she could not find meaningful work. Often when she did get a job, it was short-lived.

For example, she landed a role on a TV soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” But the network canned her after a supermarket owner from Syracuse, N.Y., told the sponsor’s ad agency he would put up a special display asking shoppers if they wanted to “brush their teeth with a product from a company that employs communists.”

Born Lyova Rosenthal, Grant spoke to the Forward about the blacklist, being her own worst enemy, and sending her adopted Thai-American daughter to Rodeph Shalom Day School in Manhattan.

Curt Schleier: Why did you decide to write your memoir now?

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David Wain Is Back Again

By Curt Schleier

David Wain is a co-founder of two sketch comedy troupes, The State and Stella. He is executive producer and occasional star of the Emmy-winning Adult Swim series, “Children’s Hospital.” He also has his own online show, “Wainy Days,” about his (mis)adventures with women.

But certainly his greatest claim to fame is his 2001 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.” That is, until now.

Wain’s latest, “They Came Together,” will soon claim top billing. It’s a hilarious spoof on the romantic comedy genre that opens in New York, Los Angeles and other markets June 27.

The film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, the typical romantic comedy lead — i.e. “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely but not overtly Jewish.”

Amy Poehler is Molly the klutzy but cute potential girlfriend. They meet in a bookstore where they discover that they both like — wait for it — “fiction books.” But problems ensue when she discovers he works for Candy Systems and Research, the company hoping to put her little store, Upper Sweet Side, out of business.

Still, they fall in love. They fall out of love. There are complications, but — spoiler alert — there is a happy ending, with shout-outs to everything from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Crossing Delancey.”

“They Came Together” is so funny you don’t need an entire funny bone to find laughs here. A few funny cells are more than enough to see the humor.

Wain spoke to the Forward about his complete lack of preparation for this interview, the low brow-ness of his jokes and how he’s not Pagliacci.

Curt Schleier: Have you prepared enough one-liners to make me look creative and funny to the readers of The Forward?

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Fighting Aaron Swartz's War

By Dorri Olds

It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.

Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.

Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.

Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.

The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.

Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?

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