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At Sundance, an anarchist creates waves

Director Adam Bhala Lough, seated, and Cody Wilson from the film "The New Radical."
Director Adam Bhala Lough, seated, and Cody Wilson from the film “The New Radical.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Cody Wilson turned a toothpick over in his mouth and swirled the olive-adorned drink in front of him.

“I don’t ask anyone to be sympathetic to my position,” he said. “I don’t think I’m a very sympathetic character.”

The 28-year-old may or may not be on to something when he makes that statement about his personality. He is decidedly on-point when he makes it about his ideas.

Wilson is part of a loose group of techno-anarchists, or crypto-anarchists. Together with such figures as Bitcoin developer Amir Taaki and, somewhat more distantly, the ‎likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, he seeks to overthrow established systems by using new forms of digital savvy and aggression. These are, needless to say, far from consensus beliefs..

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance 2017 »

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Wilson’s ideology, ascent and travails are followed in Adam Bhala Lough’s “The New ‎Radical.” The youth-culture filmmaker’s latest documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this week, takes viewers on a sweep through an underground world, offering as much a portrait of a new and subversive way of thinking as of the thinkers themselves.‎ Told slickly if not always explanatorily, “New Radical” follows such initiatives as Defense Distributed, a digital file that allows anyone with a 3-D printer to create their own gun away from government oversight, and Dark Wallet, a kind of Internet market in the shadows where digital currency can move undetected.‎

At the center of it all is Wilson, who founded and created the file for Defense Distributed and is a key cog in Dark Wallet.

As it has played at Sundance several times over the course of the week, “Radical” has landed with all the gentleness of a Molotov cocktail. Despite their ambition, issue-minded movies at this gathering tend to fall into a comfortable set of mainstream center-left positions; someone who occupies both the extreme right and left ends of the spectrum (depending on the issue) will almost inherently be a feather-ruffler.

Power is the threat of violence.

— Cody Wilson

In “New Radical,” the archetype alluded to by the title looks to create fundamental political change by pushing for one or more of the following: an eradication of intellectual-property laws, radical free speech, fierce encryption to protect that speech, anonymous money (basically, digital currency not controlled or monitored by any government) and a general disdain for traditional legislative structures.

Wilson has added another element: weapons. The hyper-articulate Arkansas native came into the public eye in 2013 when Defense Distributed released the blueprint for its first gun, called The Liberator. The program essentially allows anyone with access to a 3-D printer to make an end run around gun regulations by printing a plastic weapon at home.

“The project started with guns. It was like, ‘If you combine WikiLeaks and guns — guns and the Internet — doesn’t that change the political?’ Power is the threat of violence,” he said. The mere possibility that anyone can take up arms will, in Wilson’s view, keep everyone in check — in turn both neutralizing government and taking over its order-maintaining function.

Though the State Department shut him down shortly after he went online, Wilson continues to fight the battle in the courts, and says he is optimistic that he can win in the next few years. “What [judges] have been doing is piece by piece committing themselves to positions I hold. What I’m doing them is beating them slowly, death by a thousand paper cuts.”

Wilson speaks with a kind of intellectual turbocharge, casually using phrases such as “furious mimetic force” and assuming a level of political-philosophy literacy that would tax an advanced grad student. Radiating a no-nonsense confidence, Wilson can be off-putting to some; at the festival, that reaction has sometimes been palpable.

Silicon Valley needs to get its teeth kicked in whenever it can; I’m down for that first and foremost.

— Cody Wilson

His ideas, he said, took root in intensive readings of leftist political theory before sprouting into a new kind of hybrid. Indeed, Wilson confounds most traditional positions; figuring out where he stands on issues can be an exercise in checking off boxes from wildly different columns.

Here’s a quick list:

Intellectual-property rights, no; political leaders, really no; progressive politics, really, really no (“Liberalism is the thing we whistle while we assert our domination over people,” he says in the film); the tech world, pretty emphatically no (“Silicon Valley needs to get its teeth kicked in whenever it can; I’m down for that first and foremost,” he said in the interview).

Easy access to guns, yes; unfettered encryption, yes; radical free speech, yes; a monetary system untethered to any government, really yes; a government that itself withers away, Marx-style, really, really yes.

Wilson does take pains to separate himself from the alt-right. As he began to explain the distinctions, Bhala Lough jumped in to say that the movie was largely completed before that movement gained mainstream currency, then sought to change the subject, implicitly suggesting that such publicity would be radioactive.