The Movie Review: Defcon: The Documentary

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Created on Friday, 23 August 2013 12:48
Published on Friday, 23 August 2013 12:48
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By Daniel Olbrych

I first met documentarian Jason Scott in Las Vegas last year, a couple days prior to DEFCON 20. He was there to make a film about the conference, and he was busy with the last-minute preparations he and his team had to make.
Our encounter was cordial but brief, and Jason sped away. I didn’t think people rode them any more, but here he was riding a Segway scooter, a chariot of self-importance.
I saw the first half of “Defcon: The Documentary” at its debut last month at DEFCON 21, and the rest of it on vimeo.com, where it is available for free.
In my first viewing I thought the first 15 minutes were just a long introduction until it dawned on me that this was actually the film, a build-up without resolve. In its two-hour run time, the documentary remains just as directionless for its duration.
Anybody who tries to capture all of what goes on, or what has gone on before, at the year’s biggest gathering of hackers and tech visionaries in one place, is bound to have his hands full and a lot of decisions to make.
But rather than explore the why and the reason, Scott opts to edit together a plethora of CON stories. Sure, some of them are amusing, but simultaneously so damaging. In a matter of minutes he reduces the smartest people I know into a band of eccentric alcoholics.
Scott focuses more on parties than what DEFCON actually is. A Goon remarks, “... if you have a good con, you probably have no recollection of what actually happened...” So let me get this straight: you’re at the world’s largest hacker convention, in a sea of brilliant minds, with more lectures every hour than you could possibly attend in three days, and this is what you have to say about it?
Now to be fair, there is an awful lot of drinking that happens in Las Vegas, especially at DEFCON. But a majority of these people only get to see each other one weekend a year. So yes, of course there are celebrations a plenty. But to suggest that this is the reason why people attend DEFCON – that and to buy T-shirts – is ridiculous. 
Scattered throughout the film are several insightful interviews. When DEFCON founder Dark Tangent and head of security Priest are on camera, the film is quite engaging. And early on there is a candid interview with an attendee who excitedly says, “... this is information, on how to fix them and make them better for the future.” What he’s talking about is computer technology and his remark is an essential truth. But his point is soon washed away by a tidal wave of generalities, assertions like “... you can make what you want out it.” As with all things in life. And soon this becomes the film’s mantra.
Uninspired Segwaygian shots litter the film’s B-roll. That, along with “Benny Hill” fast forwards and a large amount of unexplained randomness, including robots, a flying wing, a DJ Booth on wheels, and fire play, constitute the bombardment of visuals in between discussion. And there lies the root of the problem. The absence of connectivity.
There is much to said about DEFCON, so much that Scott clearly doesn’t know what to do with it all. He had behind-the-scenes access at a remarkable gathering that comes across here as nothing more than a place where you can party and get a mohawk. There is some mention of the EFF (www.eff.org), but what they do is not made clear. There is even less mention of what hackers do, and again, this is an unexplored topic. In fact, nothing is truly explained.
I’d be interested to hear a reaction from a viewer who doesn’t know much about this subculture. I don’t expect they’d learn much at all, and that is a shame.
Every film, even a documentary, needs to tell a story. There needs to be some reason for its existence. But the lack of order and a cohesive idea make this documentary seem more like a video yearbook.
It doesn’t portray hackers as criminals but it doesn’t give  a better understanding who these people are. And what irks me most is those interviewed and documented are, for the most part, those who are a little offbeat, making caricatures out of the lot of them. DEFCON is so casually explored here that the essence of it is entirely lost. “Defcon: The Documentary” is an unfocused, lost opportunity.