Laura Poitras's new film, Risk, has had a long and torturous road to release in the UK. She began filming the Julian Assange documentary in 2011, and an initial cut was screened at Cannes in 2016 before the final version was released in the US in May. In that time, Poitras's relationship with Wikileaks and Assange deteriorated to the point where the organization's lawyers sent her distributors cease and desist letters demanding the film's cancellation, arguing that the documentary placed its subjects in "legal jeopardy."
"Julian is not happy with the film, as you might have heard," Poitras says with characteristic understatement. "It's not the film he wanted."
Risk occupies the same universe of hackers and whistleblowers as Poitras's 2014 movie Citizenfour, but it is a vastly different beast to the Edward Snowden documentary. While Citizenfour presented viewers with a subject so appealingly principled that he was later played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a gushy biopic, Risk is a complex portrait of a far more complicated man.
It isn't just because Assange is now inextricably tied to the rape allegations made against him by two Swedish women. Or that he's spent five years holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in an extradition standoff that appears to show no signs of abating, even now that Sweden dropped the investigation into the claims. Or that his organization was briefly hailed by Trump for leaking DNC emails that are now thought to have been provided by Russian hackers.
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It's because, for all his talk about the power of the internet and whistleblowing, Assange's central thesis—that the internet is good, that freedom of information is paramount—has been proven false by recent events. Risk is about the death of the dream of the internet, and the toxic and misogynist attitudes that have taken root in its wake. And nobody embodies this radical shift more than Assange himself.
"From a filmmaking perspective, it's a film I began with a lot of optimism and hope and it ends on a very dark note," Poitras says. "It charts something a bit more tragic and ambivalent [than Citizenfour]."
As Poitras readily admits in the documentary herself, "This is not the film I thought I was making." What was initially pitched as a fly-on-the-wall movie about Wikileaks' journalism soon evolved into a much more eye-opening portrait of the organization's founder.
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"What I was interested in was [Wikileaks'] journalism and wanting to document how their journalism was changing world events on the ground in many countries," she says. "But when I got there, they were really fighting the Swedish case. So I had to address it in the film."
In one jaw-dropping scene, Assange laughs off the allegations made against him as "a thoroughly tawdry, radical feminist political positioning thing," and even suggests that one of his accusers is untrustworthy because she once started a lesbian nightclub.
"A woman has every right to bring cases [against men]," Poitras says of Assange's behavior in the scene. "Defend your innocence, but don't attack the women. Defend your innocence, but don't create conspiracy theories around them or don't try to discredit them.
"I'm actually more disturbed by what he says in the film after that, where he's saying that the women are going to be reviled by a large segment of the global population," she adds. "Those kind of attitudes are super disturbing. He's basically saying that the internet is going to take his side on this."
The scene is one of a few in which you get a glimpse of the real Assange, who otherwise remains frustratingly opaque. (According to Poitras, it's also one of the scenes that Assange asked her to take out—a request which she refused.) For a man so determined to uncover other people's secrets, he retains an almost vice-like grip on his own emotions and inner thoughts—not for nothing does one reviewer describe him as "a kind of lizard." In a revealing but surreal scene, self-professed fangirl Lady Gaga visits Assange in the embassy and attempts to record an interview with him. "I just really want to know how you feel," she asks. "I don't care how I feel," he replies.
"There's a bit of truth in that with Julian," Poitras says. "He's very focused on what he's trying to achieve and is, in a sense, not interested in how he feels. I don't know if, in terms of understanding on an emotional level, [I know] what makes him tick. I don't have that answer. I think that's partly a bit of who he is."
There are no heroes in Risk; even Tor developer Jacob Applebaum, who is introduced in the film publicly calling out Egyptian mobile phone companies for allowing the government to spy on its people, is later shown to have been accused of sexual assault. (Applebaum has denied these claims; Poitras previously had a sexual relationship with Applebaum, which she discloses in the film.)
Does the hacking community have a problem with sexual assault? "What I think what the film does reveal is attitudes," she demurs. "That, I do think, is something you see within the tech and hacker community. But you also see it in workplaces and social movements all the time. You have internal politics and power dynamics that can become very gendered, and that can sometimes be in contradiction to the larger goals and values."
It's something obvious not just in Assange's sneery treatment of his alleged victims, but his general behavior around women. For most of the film, Assange is surrounded by women—they are his lawyers, confidants, and sources of support. Once he installs himself in the Ecuadorian embassy, they are also—as with Wikileaks editor Sarah Harrison—his sole lifeline to the world outside. Yet he is never shown treating anybody with anything remotely resembling affection or appreciation. When Lady Gaga visits him, he takes the opportunity to talk over her, resulting in a scene where he spends several minutes listing all the government organizations investigating him as the pop star becomes visibly bored.
Early reviews expressed frustration with the deep ambiguities in the film, the questionable ethics of including Applebaum in light of their prior relationship, and the overriding sense that Poitras allows the narrative threads of the story to run ahead of her. Much of the third act of the documentary didn't exist at Cannes, as the claims about Applebaum and the DNC revelations had yet to come out. On Poitras' part, she says that including the two was non-negotiable: "I thought, Either I walk away from the film or I have to keep working on it."
If the documentary feels unfinished and raw, it's because we're still living in the reality created by Wikileaks, which Poitras sums up as "the utopian idea of the internet and the more dystopian reality that we find ourselves in." We have yet to figure out just how much Russian hackers interfered with the US election; Assange is still in the embassy, and each week brings about a new and even more alarming twist to the times that we live in.
"I'm not interested in creating narrative resolution," Poitras says. "The typical trope in filmmaking is you tie up everything and the film ends with a sense of closure. I think that's sometimes misleading in terms of the reality we live in."
Risk in out now in the US and is in cinemas and on demand June 30 in the UK.