Netizens

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Netizens
"While it's great to see female voices being put centre-stage, something more from the websites in the firing line, such as Google, Twitter or Facebook would be a welcome addition." | Photo: Train of Thought Productions

One of the most telling moments in Cynthia Lowen's documentary about the appalling harassment faced by many women online, is at first glance one of its most seemingly innocuous. Tina Reine, one of three main subjects of the film, has just finished telling a group of Toastmasters (a popular public speaking social group in the US) about the impact her ex's cyber attacks had on her, as he bombarded the web with a number of sites claiming she had been an escort, sending links to her friends and family and costing her her high-flying job and seriously hampering future employment.

It's emotional, but immediately afterwards, we see a man explaining - or, rather, mansplaining - how she should just ignore it, sticks and stones and all that. Tina is polite and tries to gently explain why simply letting it wash over her doesn't stop the impact that what is written has on others, such as potential employers who don't know her personally, but you can see he isn't convinced. And this, from a women's perspective at least, sums up the problem in a nutshell - it's not just the fact that cyber attacks are happening but the slowness of society as a whole to treat them with the gravity they deserve.

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Lowen shows how women are working to change that. We follow Reine as she starts to take control of her own narrative after discovering that her ex's First Amendment rights seem to trump hers in terms of prominence. There is also extensive coverage of the work of feminist blogger and public speaker Anita Sarkeesian, who found herself on the receiving end of targeted death and rape threats as part of what has become known as Gamergate. As a number of voices read just some of the horrific abuse she has received, British audiences are likely to be reminded of a similar litany of misogyny described in parliament by SNP MP Mhairi Black recently.

The third main contributor is lawyer Carrie Goldberg, who after being on the receiving end of cyber-stalking herself, decided to specialise in this type of crime. It's with both a sense of, triumph and dismay we come to realise just how much her practice is thriving.

Explaining the impact of this sort of abuse, Goldberg says, "Trauma is your shadow", as she and Reine explain the way that online attacks linger long after regular small-town gossip would have moved on. The film is largely made up of 'talking heads' footage, but it is well shot by Leah Byrne, Rachel Lears and Cailin Yatsko, with strong editing from Emily Williams, that ensures multiple angles are used during interviews to help stop the footage feeling flat and repetitive.

While it's great to see female voices being put centre-stage, something more from the websites in the firing line, such as Google, Twitter or Facebook would be a welcome addition. It's worth noting that the European Union also has stronger laws on this - such as the right to be forgotten and it would have been interesting to see what the contributors to Lowen's film think of that in relation to the US. Although we're reminded that the tech industry is male-dominated, some sort of right of reply would also have helped strengthen her argument, even if the companies refused to contribute.

The film also hints at interesting subjects that could easily warrant further exploration, such as the way that misogynist attacks often dovetail with other elements such as racism or abuse of sexual orientation. A broadening out of the argument to examine what more can be done generally would have been welcome, but as a wake-up call about the impact of harassment and a celebration of what has already been achieved by this trio of fighters, Lowen's film is first-class.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2018
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Netizens packshot
Three women talk about cyber-stalking and online abuse and the ways in which they have fought back.

Director: Cynthia Lowen

Writer: Cynthia Lowen

Starring: Elisabeth Aultman, Carrie Goldberg, Tina Reine, Anita Sarkeesian, Elisabeth Aultman, Carrie Goldberg, Tina Reine, Anita Sarkeesian

Year: 2018

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Tribeca 2018

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