Linux Comes to the Big Screen
by Michelle Delio
February 1, 2001
Linux is more than just an alternative operating system. It's also a culture with its own ethics, gods, myths and heroes.
A new film, Revolution O.S., explores the human side of the open source and free software movements, telling the inside story of the hackers and programmers rebelling against the corporate machine.
Revolution O.S. also depicts the culture of the open source movement by documenting the Installfest parties where people can bring their computers to get free, expert Linux tech support, and the Refund Day protest marches, where Linux users demand reimbursement of the extra fees that get tacked onto the purchase price of new computers for pre-installed Microsoft applications.
Revolution O.S. was made by J.T.S. Moore, who was totally unfamiliar with the open source community when he started the project.
"It wasn't my idea," Moore said. "One day in June 1999, I was talking on the phone to a good friend from Stanford, Doug Bone. He had seen my various films and videos over the years, and out of the blue, he jokingly suggested I make a documentary about the history of Linux."
Moore looked into it and decided there was a great tale to be told about the people behind the software, a story rich with colorful personalities, creation and conflicts.
In an attempt to reflect the complicated culture he captured in his project, Moore bills Revolution O.S. as an "epic movie," and said that his one regret was that he didn't have enough money to hire Charlton Heston to narrate the film.
"Charlton Heston is a national treasure," Moore said. "I think any man who had the vision to star in Planet of the Apes, Omega Man and Soylent Green deserves respect. The bottom line is that if you love individual liberty you have to admire Charlton Heston."
Not that the movie needs Heston to establish itself as a bona fide epic, said Moore, because at its core, "the open source movement is about hundreds of thousands of hackers and programmers around the world trying to throw off the yoke of the most powerful corporation on Earth."
"If that's not epic, I don't know what is."
To capture what he saw as the nature of open source's ideas and struggle, Moore worked with the old Hollywood epic format of anamorphic 35mm film (Cinemascope). Most documentaries are shot in a square format to fit TV screens, but Revolution O.S. is shot in the wide, rectangle format of the movie theater.
Moore chose to work with film because "despite the delusional hype of the digital video community," he believes that 35mm film is superior to DV, at least for the intermediate future.
"Also, shooting in DV breeds bad habits and yields an inferior image," Moore said. "Filmmakers shooting in DV tend to shoot staggering amounts of footage because it's cheap -- not because it's necessary. Ultimately, DV will probably trump 35mm film, but I will wait to use the format until it is undeniably better in terms of quality."
"Don't get me wrong, no one is gonna mistake my cinematography in Revolution O.S. for a slick Hollywood film, but at least it doesn't have the amateur porno aesthetic of DV."
The 90-minute film begins with Richard Stallman's quest to create a free operating system. It then follows the movement through its two decades-long evolution in interviews with Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond (author of The Cathedral and The Bazaar), Bruce Perens, (author of the Open Source Definition), Brian Behlendorf (leader of the Apache Web server project), Michael Tiemann (founder of the first open source company) and Larry Augustin (founder of VA Linux Systems).
Moore has worked as a screenwriter for Disney and has had his work appear at the Telluride Film Festival and on the Encore cable channel.
Revolution O.S. is his first feature-length documentary and, Moore said, it was the most challenging creative project. He wrote, directed, produced, photographed, and edited Revolution O.S.
At the end of the project Moore found he'd turned into an open source advocate –- but with some reservations.
Moore thinks the open source development model is here to stay, but is not convinced it will become completely dominant. He believes that it will probably co-exist with the closed source model.
Eric Raymond, in a piece of writing that is widely acknowledged to define the ethics and rational of the open source and free software community, uses two cultural structures, the cathedral and the bazaar as a metaphor to describe the virtues of open source.
Comparing the isolated model of the cathedral with the "babbling complexity" of the bazaar, Raymond makes a case for the seemingly chaotic marketplace as the cornerstone of a stable and resourceful economy and society.
But Moore also sees in Raymond's metaphor an example of the virtue of the closed source model.
"While bazaars are vibrant, fast-paced, evolving environments, a cathedral can be a stunningly beautiful creation of enduring purpose that lasts 1,000 years. As someone who approaches intellectual property rights from the artistic side, the cathedral model has its appeal," Moore said.
Moore thinks the biggest threat to the success of the open source movement is piracy, not Microsoft.
"If the voluntary ideals of the open source movement are further corrupted by a subculture of intellectual property theft, then the whole movement will be tainted. The owners of intellectual property will continue to fight the movement rather than cooperate with it."
Moore believes that while many are convinced open source will give rise to new business models based on service and a culture of celebrity, the creators of intellectual property should have the option to participate in these new business models rather than being forced into "a communist manner because some people figure that if they can copy something then it's fair game to steal it."
Revolution O.S. will be sneak-previewed Thursday night at Manhattan's AMC Empire 25 Theater, at 8:30. Those attending LinuxWorld this week can pick up tickets at the OSDN booth (#3000) in the dot-org pavilion.
The first public screening of the film will be at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, on March 12. Moore said people who would like to see the film should feel free to call "and pester" film distributors such as Miramax, Lions Gate in Los Angeles, and Cowboy Booking International in New York.
"If enough people say they want to see the film, maybe they will distribute it," Moore said.
Moore also noted that most of the film was financed via his Visa card.
"So, if anyone wants to buy the film and get me out of debt, know that I will entertain any reasonable offer," he said, in true open source spirit.