November 14, 2013

2013 DOC NYC Filmmaker Profile: Michael Kleiman (Director – ‘WEB’)


Director Michael Kleiman follows Peruvian families living in remote regions as their children experience the One Laptop per Child program, gaining access to the Internet for the first time. ‘Web’ considers both the benefits and complications that arise from digital connections. Alongside the poignant and sometimes humorous local stories, Kleiman interviews leading thinkers on the Internet including author Clay Shirky, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and One Laptop founder Nicholas Negroponte for an insightful look at our times.

The film is a thought-provoking and character-based consideration of technology, interdependence, and the Internet. For 10 months, Kleiman lived in small villages in the Andes Mountains and Amazon Jungle in Peru. While there, he lived with families and documented the villagers’ first experience with computers and the Internet via the One Laptop per CHild program. As the children and their parents engage with communications technologies for the first time, the film is a deeply relevant consideration of the digital world we find ourselves in, the tremendous implications we are beginning to see all around us, and the changing definition of connection – both remote technological connection and face-to-face human connection.

Buy Tickets for ‘WEB’ (World Premiere) playing as part of DOC NYC at IFC Center on Saturday, November 16, 2013 – HERE

Describe your affiliation with the OLPC program?  Speaking outside the parameters of the documentary, what is it about the program you find to be most important to those who use it?
My relationship with OLPC started with an email. I sent Nicholas Negroponte an email telling him I wanted to make a film about the organization, asking his advice on a location and whether he’d be willing to introduce me to the people on the ground who could help me figure out some of the logistics. He wrote me back very quickly suggesting Peru and introduced me to people at the Peruvian Ministry of Education who helped me make the necessary arrangements to film in schools. Because independence was very important to us in the process, we tried to limit our workings with OLPC. Both Nicholas Negroponte and Walter Bender were kind enough to sit for interviews, but that was pretty much the limit to their involvement.

From my experience, there are two really important pieces that families get from the program (and I should say this is only based on the two villages where I lived). First is communication. The village where I lived in the Amazon is incredibly isolated – there are no roads that connect them to the rest of the country, no electricity or phones – and they feel the disconnection intensely. Many have family members who live in other parts of the country or are serving in the army who they simply don’t see. Lidia, the 10-year old girl who is one of the film’s “stars” has never met her grandfather; Lidia’s mother hasn’t seen her older daughter in a year. Suddenly having the ability to connect with families via email, instant messaging, to be able to speak with them and share pictures is really powerful. The second piece that OLPC focuses on is the ownership piece, the idea that each child gets his/her own laptop. Many of the people told me they often felt forgotten. Receiving a laptop of their own – which is an object they recognize as having tremendous value – sends a really strong message of their individual worth, which I think is rare in a lot of government programs.

WEBWhat is your philosophy toward the documentary medium?  Whether with WEB or otherwise, in your opinion, what are some characteristics of a successful modern documentary?
I think any good documentary, like any good film, first and foremost needs to tell an engaging story. In my experience, the most important piece of that is the people the story is about. What’s great about the documentary medium is those people are real, so you’re providing the audience with a unique window into someone else’s life. I think that can really help us come to recognize the common humanity we all share. Helping to forge that type of empathy is a principle and a goal that’s at the heart of all of our work. The important responsibility that comes along with that is being honest and genuine with the subjects you’re working with to make sure they’re comfortable exposing themselves in that way. You need to really engage them in the creative process.

Regarding WEB, aside from featuring a nice collection of natives you also include interviews with several of todays top tech figures.  How did your list of interview subjects in this realm come about?  Did you find anyone to be particularly difficult to get on board with the project?
I think the ironic thing about the interviews with Web is that we got in touch with almost all of the interview subjects through random, cold emails. My producer, Michael Pertnoy and I have a great working relationship in that regard: he’s incredible at scouring the web and finding email addresses and I’m good at writing introductory emails. Neither of us could believe how many people not only responded, but agreed to be a part of the film based on an email. There were several cases where we got help from really supportive members of our advisory board who had relationships with different people we wanted in the film. Overall I was amazed, and incredibly grateful, for how willing people were to speak with us. Certainly there were some people we wanted to interview that didn’t work out for one reason or another, mostly related to scheduling.

WEBWhat is the biggest hindrance toward a worldwide connectivity?  Is it rooted in market economics, awareness, accessibility, a combination of all or, perhaps, something else?
We’re starting to get a little above my pay grade here, but I’d say there a number of factors that go into this. Currently, there about 5 billion people around the world who don’t have access to the Internet. Some of that has to do with infrastructure – a lack of wiring and connectivity. But I think we’re starting to see a lot of that work itself out with the expansion of cell phone networks around the world. For most people in the developing world, their first (and in some cases only) experience with the Internet is going to be mobile-based. One of the things that Clay Shirky pointed out when we spoke with him is that reaching the next few billion people will be relatively easy infrastructure wise, it’s going to be the last billion who are incredibly difficult to reach because of how challenging it is to get to them physically. I do think the other important factor is the priority that we give to Internet access. Many people simply feel that in the context of other needs that people have in the developing world, access to the Internet shouldn’t be at the top of our to do list. Their point is very valid, but my experience living in Peruvian villages (granted with people whose basic needs were met) offered really profound insight into the power of connectivity. It’s not only a great resource for people to get information, educate themselves and work to come up with solutions to their own problems, but communication in itself is very important. People are aware of the connectivity that the rest of the world has to each other. They’ve heard about the Internet and email and Facebook and they want to be a part of that.

With your knowledge and research on the subject, where does the OLPC program still need improvement?
First of all, I should again preface by saying that although I’ve visited many schools in Peru that are using the OLPC program, I only really have a strong expertise on the two villages where I lived. So my knowledge comes largely from what I saw in those two specific locations.  In both villages, while there have certainly been hiccups, from what I saw, the program has been very successful. The two biggest improvements I could foresee would be around technical issues and improved teacher training, both of which are brought up in the film.

Twitter: @righteouspix
Facebook: /WEBtheFilm



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