Has Wiki-Leaks founder Julian Assange been corrupted by his power? This excellent biographical documentary by ‘Citizenfour’ filmmaker Laura Poitras provides a complicated answer.
Laura Poitras’s documentary, Risk, is about Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, who has been ensconced in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012. The South American country granted him asylum after British authorities were set to honor a Swedish extradition request; at the time, Assange faced four charges of illegal coercion and rape in Sweden. If he leaves the embassy, he will be arrested.
Poitras is the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker of Citizenfour (2016), which is an authorized bio-documentary of Edward Snowden, and his decision to expose the National Security Agency’s illegal mining of phone and Internet data. In 2012, Poitras received an encrypted message from the former CIA employee, and in 2013, along with two other journalists, helped him leak classified documents from the NSA. She has been on terrorist “watch lists,” and has been searched at border crossings.
In a May 2nd, 2017 telephone interview, Poitras discussed Risk, which begins in 2011, right before the “Cablegate” release by WikiLeaks. It contained classified information sent via cable to the U.S. State Department by its consulates; in the documentary, Assange calls the agency to warn them about the upcoming leak. “I was working on this film when I was contacted,” she says, referring to Snowden. “For a time I thought it was part of the same film. I thought both stories would be in there. Then when I began editing what became Citizenfour, I realized that one film could not contain both of these stories.” Poitras shelved the 2011 footage of Assange, and finished the Snowden documentary.
Recalling her later return to Assange and his WikiLeaks staff, portrayed in Risk, she says: “I began filming with a real sense of optimism, and now I think it is more mixed, and that the story turned out to be darker than I anticipated. That’s partly due to a falling out that we had around the NSA story and then his request that I not include certain things in the film.” That “falling out” was over Poitras’s steering Snowden away from WikiLeaks. As for redacting portions of Risk, the irony speaks volumes. Poitras refused. Her documentary is a disquieting portrait of the Australian-born publisher who started WikiLeaks in 2006, having created a way to publish large amounts of data, while preserving the whistleblower’s anonymity.
At several key moments in the documentary, the filmmaker speaks in voice-over from her production diary for Risk. In part, her decision to insert herself in the story was influenced by her affair with Jacob Applebaum, an associate of Assange’s, and a subject in the documentary; he resigned from a software company over accusations of sexual assault. In an opening sequence that depicts Assange exiting a hearing in which he appeals Britain’s decision to extradite him, she says: “This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions . . . I was wrong. They’re becoming the story.” That candid expression of anxiety adds an unusual layer to Poitras’s imbricated tale of Julian Assange as an aggressive, egotistical and, at times, shockingly misogynistic guy.
That use of voice-over also offers an intriguing twist in biographical documentary: Poitras is neither furthering the narrative, nor explaining an unfolding event, two of the most common uses of narration in non-fiction film, but rather reflecting on what she refers to as the “shifting terrain” of her personal and professional relationship to Assange. The diary entries are an astute analysis of her mental state and her methods, contemporaneous to filming, and used as retrospection, consciously placed to confer meaning. It creates another layer in the exercise of biography for the audience to judge Poitras’s profile of Assange.
At times in our interview, the filmmaker speaks well of her subject and his work, to which she received seemingly unfettered access. “I have a difference of opinion with Julian around publishing certain things, like personally identifying information, people’s names, etc. or not redacting them,” she says. “On the other hand, I absolutely defend WikiLeaks’s publishing and the decision to publish the DNC e-mails. I think they were newsworthy.”
When asked about the most damning scene in the documentary, in which Assange meets with his female lawyer to discuss various strategies for handling the coercion and rape allegations, Poitras does not demur—nor did she while filming. Assange’s rhetoric in that scene, and his treatment of the lawyer, are appalling. “They show an attitude that I find objectionable but I felt it was important to put in the film because they are his words,” Poitras observes. “We are living in a culture where there is impunity toward these points of view and behaviors, and I think it is important to challenge them.”
Risk explores the gamble inherent in publishing state secrets with no oversight, and the unbridled power required to do so, which in Poitras’s view bears a striking resemblance to the puissance exercised by state authorities that WikiLeaks calls to task. In Assange’s apparent view of himself as a world player and master manipulator, she suggests that he is sometimes a party to the same collateral damage he accuses others of. If you miss that self-image, articulated many times in Risk, especially in Assange’s assured smirk after his appeal hearing, or in the way he relishes the opportunity to tell then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what he is about to do before Cablegate, then Poitras offers another sort of unchecked power—Assange and Applebaum as examples of the pervasive “boys will be boys” attitude that excuses male bullying and sexual aggression.
To Assange’s acolytes, who insist that the rape allegations are “trumped up” (an interesting phrase these days), he will remain an undefiled defender of liberty, the brilliant and calculating man that he obviously is—and Poitras will not argue the point. When asked if Assange displays signs of a borderline personality, she replies: “The reason that I make films is to do things that are nuanced and complex, and that let the audience grapple with these kinds of questions. I think I presented a pretty complex portrait—it does present his philosophy and why he makes the choices that he does. My answer to your question is my film.”