Review: ‘Netizens’

Hot Docs 2018

6 mins read

(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Cynthia Lowen
Programme: Silence Breakers (International Premiere)


Hot Docs spotlights the Silence Breakers this year with a special line-up of films that capture the passion, energy, rage, and impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s precipitous fall that rocked Hollywood and workplace relations worldwide. Of all these all-female directed films in the line-up, Cynthia Lowen’s Netizens represents female voices in the festival’s splashy Scotiabank Big Ideas series in which filmmakers and subjects engage in conversations following the film. There couldn’t be a better film than Netizens with which to motivate this conversation about women’s rights and the fight against misogyny. The film features several courageous women who fight for change against the most pervasive predator of all: the Internet.

There are no Harvey Weinsteins in Netizens. No Bill Cosbys, James Tobacks, Matt Lauers, or Jian Ghomeshis. The men who target women in Netizens are the faceless cowards who hide behind the Internet and prey from afar. It is both terrifying and repulsive to see the lengths to which men go with the aid of anonymity.

However, Lowen gives facetime to three brave women and their stories demand attention. Carrie Goldberg, for example, is a New York attorney who specializes in victims’ rights. Netizens opens with an unsettling sequence in which Goldberg walks Lowen through a crime scene. She takes the camera up a rugged concrete hill over which her client was carried and dragged before being brutally raped. She then tells Lowen that this young girl relives the assault daily because her classmate posted a video of the attack online, which made the rounds for all the school to see. The administration’s response? Simply to seize any phones from students who had seen the video, delete the files, and return the phones. The action, or lack thereof, illustrates the institutional bias that puts attackers first and survivors second.

Other alarming aspects of cyberbullying and virtual predation arise in the story of vlogger Anita Sarkeesian. The feminist critic and proud geek opens up about her experience rocking the video game world with her scathingly funny deconstructions of gender roles and sexism. Netizens shows how her videos like “Tropes vs. Women” brought the Twitter trolls out of hiding. The mere act of speaking up against misogyny emboldens some men to return it with fury. Sarkeesian tells of death threats, rape jokes, and cringe-worthy harassment by men who feel threatened by a woman’s voice. This misogyny only fuels her work and strengthens its urgency.

Perhaps the most compelling and eye-opening tale of Netizens is that of Tina Reine. She introduces her story by reading an eager offer of employment for a high-level position at JP Morgan Chase. Reine recalls how that offer disappeared and how all communication with JP Morgan Chase ceased when someone at the firm Googled her name and saw countless blogs and posts exposing her history as an escort. It turns out that the author of these posts was Reine’s ex-boyfriend who reframed and tried to redefine her life via revenge porn. Lowen follows Reine as she strives to erase this story from the Internet. That isn’t easy, however, when amendments of free speech protect the person posting anonymous poison on Tumblr more often than they serve the target. Like Goldberg and Sarkeesian, however, Reine refuses to let the perversions of the Internet define her.

This provocative film sees these three stories through fruition as each subject defies misogyny and mansplainers to create a safer space for women. Lowen intercuts the three main stories with other voices who add their experiences with online misogyny and their efforts to join the fight. The sad reality implied within this chorus of silence breakers, however, is that these stories are all too common. Harvey Weinstein might be the most salacious headline but the predation enabled by the Internet is too gross for any one film to contain.

What Lowen achieves, however, is a demand to fix the conversation, laws, language, and, ultimately, system. This empowering film shows the grit and tenacity of three women who courageously fight for change. It’s time for lawmakers and leaders to fight with them. A retweet with a hashtag is not enough.

Netizens screens:
-Sun, Apr. 29 at 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Scotiabank Big Ideas screening)
-Mon, Apr. 30 at 10:00 AM at the Isabel Bader
-Sat, May 5 at 10:00 AM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit for more info.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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