Alex Winter's new film explores the evolution of blockchain and cryptocurrency

by Russell Baillie / 30 May, 2019

Director Alex Winter.

Trust Machine: The Story Of Blockchain features at the Doc Edge International Film Festival, which opens tonight.

Alex Winter’s face is best known as Keanu Reeves’ off-sider in Bill & Ted Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey. But in recent years he’s forged a career as a maker of documentaries, specializing in digital age topics.

He’s followed Downloaded, his 2013 about Napster and 2015’s Deep Web with Trust Machine: The Story Of Blockchain, a film which its publicity says “explores the evolution of cryptocurrency, blockchain and decentralization, including the technology’s role in addressing important real-world problems, such as world hunger and income inequality.” So it’s a film partly about using that tech so people can be excellent to each other.

Winter agreed to some email questions about the film and his career. Though he wouldn’t answer any about the new Bill and Ted movie (we simply asked “why?”), his upcoming Frank Zappa documentary, whether he thought Bitcoin had an image problem and if his movie was a corrective to that, or anything off-topic. But here’s what he had to say otherwise.

Given their connections, are Downloaded, Deep Web and Trust Machine a sort of trilogy … or, perhaps more fittingly, an interconnected linear chain? 

Yes, the films do function as an unintended trilogy. Downloaded was a way for me to explore the internet boom of the 90’s, and Napster representing the first large scale, global online community. Deep Web looked at the political and cultural pushback that occurred as the internet became hyper-centralized and monopolized, resulting in anonymous and often illegal online communities like Silk Road, and Trust Machine is a deep dive into the new world of cryptocurrency and blockchain, which look to completely circumvent the centralized internet with the hopes of building a free, democratized system of its own. 

Did being experienced, I assume, in the arcane world of feature documentary financing give you the mental capacity to understand how blockchain works?

Doc financing isn’t really arcane, it’s fairly straightforward. What came in handy for understanding blockchain was the byzantine world of film distribution and exhibition, which is a bit of a mess at the moment for both docs and narrative. As just another frustrated filmmaker in this moment, where the business model of our industry has yet to catch up with changing consumer habits in the digital age, I have been eager to explore new technology, and leaders in the digital space who are looking to create efficient and equitable models that work for the artist as well as the consumer and the distributor/exhibitor. That led me to blockchain based technologies.

Who’s Trust Machine for? Did you have an audience in mind when you were making it?

Really all my films are for everyone. I’m interested in compelling people and telling a good story, as opposed to educating an audience. I’ve been happy to see that the people who enjoy the film are both completely ignorant of this world and blockchain insiders.

How do you cope with that making feature films about the fast-moving world of digital technology and the web? Are you updating or re-editing right up until the final cut?

Well, as you know, staying in front of – or even just in tandem with – current events is difficult and stressful. Making the kinds of docs I have is certainly both of those things, but it’s also very gratifying. I do tend to be very specific about which strands of a story I want to explore, and who my core ensemble is. And even then it’s still a daily race to stay in front of the story.

The other week Mark Zuckerberg delivered a Facebook pep talk with the word “privacy” in flashing lights. Given the promise of better online privacy from blockchain that the film posits, what’s your take on that?

Sadly, I think it’s been clear for a long time that Facebook’s business model is to lock its users into the eco-system and then harvest them for money. The rest is empty rhetoric, unless they make fundamental and costly changes to how their core business functions.

How might cryptocurrency help get films like yours made? Have you used Bitcoin yourself?

Blockchain based technologies could very well help provide new systems for artists to distribute and track their content, more directly and equitably. It’s early days, and I think the technologies will largely creep into use largely unnoticed and under the hood, much in the way the internet drives so much of our daily lives today, but in ways that aren’t obvious to most people, like banking and other systems that run on digital networks. And secure browsing protocols like https. Similarly, cryptocurrencies are already very useful for low fee global transactions and micropayments.

Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, Doc Edge International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington May 30 - June 23.

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