TORONTO — When Gary Lang first met the subject of his "hacktivist" documentary in person, he couldn't shake the suspicion he might've been duped by the guy known as Commander X.
Christopher Doyon didn't look like the sort of guy who helped lead an online revolution as part of the hacker group Anonymous. He was a scraggly-bearded nomad with a tendency to veer off on passionate tangents about politics.
"I called my producer saying, 'This could be a flat-out catfish,'" Lang, a Toronto-based documentarian, recalled in a recent interview.
"He’s always been homeless, he has no identity, he’s never had a passport, never paid taxes. Literally, he is ‘anonymous’ …. It would be not implausible for somebody to read about these things and make up a personal narrative."
And so, Lang began sifting through Doyon's connections in hopes of separating fact from fiction.
The winding tale is captured in the TVO Original film “The Face of Anonymous,” which makes its world premiere Thursday at a virtual edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
The film delves into Doyon's years as a young activist marching on the streets and how that led to countless hours spent as a hacker typing behind computer screens.
Doyon says he was one of the Anonymous members who brought down websites for major credit card companies after they tried to block payment support for Wikileaks.
He’s also claimed to be part of a group that revitalized the Arab Spring movement, restoring the internet after the Egyptian government shut it down.
The film follows Doyan as he wanders homeless through Toronto, a fugitive from the U.S. government, before planning to flee to Mexico.
"The Face of Anonymous" also attempts to explain the hacker movement to the less-versed, using Doyan's story as a window into the good and the bad of a largely intangible internet hacker group.
"Talking about Anonymous and cyber (hacking) is all words, it's very hard to visualize and explain," Lang contends.
"I literally did not want to make a film that turned these guys into heroes."
The filmmaker said depending on how you define modern hacktivism, it’s what led Donald Trump’s supporters to storm the U.S. Capital earlier this year, but also facilitated thousands of people to march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd last year.
Doyon, who now lives in a secret location in Mexico, said he hopes "The Face of Anonymous" shows viewers that hacktivism is far from obsolete, but that it's merely blended into the broader movement of resistance and protest.
He said many people seem increasingly unsettled by wealth inequity and more willing to challenge political authority. What once might have been defined as "hacktivist" activity is now a "global movement that goes beyond a particular strategy."
"It's taking place right now as we speak …in the wires around us, in the air around us," he said.
"The ones and zeros are flying and this war is happening. Whether you even know about it doesn't matter, it is still affecting your life … it is affecting who governs and how (people) vote."
"Hacktivisim is going to be a huge tool in that overall push in anger and rage of the people."
The Hot Docs festival runs from Thursday until May 9 and, for the first time ever, the films are available to viewers across Canada through hotdocs.ca.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2021.
David Friend, The Canadian Press