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'Risk' Is a Weirdly Satisfying Look into the Life of Julian Assange

Laura Poitras's new documentary offers a thrilling and intimate look into the life of one of the most controversial journalists in the world.

by Brandon Harris
21 May 2016, 4:00am

Still from 'Risk' by Laura Poitras

At the unveiling of her newest film, a five-years-in-the-making profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his key collaborators Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum, Oscar-winning documentarian, New York Times Magazine cover subject, and alleged enemy of the state Laura Poitras didn 't mince words when asked if there had been friction between her and Assange during and after the shooting of her documentary. "I'm curious as to what your sources are," Poitras shot back at a French journalist, amid rumors of a last-minute recut of the film at the behest of Assange, who is nearing his 2,000th day in the virtual prison of asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. "I'm very supportive of the work they do at the site."

At a sit-down the next day at the Croisette Beach Hotel, Poitras told me that it had taken some finesse to get access to Assange. "It was a long process," Poitras said of her courtship of Assange, whom she initially approached after the release of Collateral Murder in 2010. By that point she was already being tracked by the government, and Assange was taking council not to step foot in the United States. "I was five years into this, I knew I was on some sort of list," Poitras explained. "But once I started filming with them, I started getting stopped every time I was in Europe."

The film, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight on Thursday, is a savvy companion piece to her riveting 2014 Edward Snowden doc, Citizenfour. After the Snowden revelation, Poitras envisioned them as one film, but gradually it became clear she would have to bifurcate the projects. Risk follows the work of Assange's outfit from the release of various unredacted state department cables in 2011. Opening with a scene of Harrison calling the US State Department—asking to speak to Hillary Clinton herself about the matter—the film documents the ongoing exile of Harrison, a UK citizen of Australian descent who cannot return to ol' Blighty after helping Snowden find his way to Moscow in 2013, and Assange, who has been holed up the past four years at the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden for sexual-assault charges that some feel are a trumped-up way of landing him in US hands. "Julian Assange is a political prisoner who sought asylum," Appelbaum told me at the premiere, "His courage endures."

Unlike Andrew O'Hagan's lengthy, less-than-flattering portrayal of Assange last year in London Review of Books , Risk is a relatively kind portrait of the work WikiLeaks has done and the personalities at its center. Partitioned into ten nameless chapters, the movie breezes by a number of the websites' most significant leaks, including the video of US helicopters gunning down journalists that Chelsea Manning helped them acquire, costing the transgender woman her freedom for the rest of her natural life. One bravura sequence takes us to Egypt as Appelbaum, at a tech conference in Cairo the year after the Arab Spring, castigates a panel of Arab ISP executives, claiming that each of them in their own way tried to stifle the Egyptian revolution by limiting internet access and censoring social-media websites. The movie sacrifices a narrative arc for a sort of segmented vignette approach, one that adds up to a fragmented but weirdly satisfying glimpse at the most controversial journalists in the world.

Harrison comes across as a slick yet humane operator, Assange's right-hand woman and increasingly, due to the tentacles of Western justice attempting to bring Assange to heel, the public face of the organization. Shot with the same assured verité that powered Citizenfour, Poitras generates remarkable tension in the sequence where Assange is attempting to gain asylum from a nation with a UK embassy. After Iceland falls through, the Ecuadorians come to the rescue at the 11th hour, just as a police presence arrives outside WikiLeaks' London headquarters, with the intent to capture Assange.

The documentary has moments of levity, too—after the WikiLeaks founder finds his way to the Ecuadoran embassy, he is visited by Lady Gaga, who grills him in an impromptu interview. After haranguing him to switch from the jacket and oxford he'd planned to wear into a "dirty fucking T-shirt"—she candidly inquires, in a sequence dominated by jump cuts, "Do you ever feel like fucking crying?" Gaga, in a stylish black floppy hat, holds her camera mere feet from his face. Assange rebuffs the thought immediately. After years of this high-stakes work, he's ice-cold. Though he cops to still occasionally having such feelings, he lost the ability to cry during puberty.

Assange is trying to stay fit at picture's end, boxing and doing sit-ups, huffing fresh air out of a barely cracked window while his exiled collaborators, who both read prepared statements of solidarity after the screening, continue to be threatened. Poitras too: In the wake of her laudatory American theater-of-war documentaries My Country, My Country and The Oath , she has been on the US Department of Homeland Security watch list since 2006.

As she revealed in her recently closed Whitney Museum installation Astro Noise, Poitras has sued the government to find out details about her case. Risk includes audio of a counter-terrorism official at the FBI's New York Field Office, recorded in secret by a Poitras sympathizer, identifying her as an "anti-American" filmmaker. Which, of course, couldn't be further from the truth. One senses, throughout this remarkable picture, the personal risk that Poitras is taking right along her subjects.

"As far as I know, it's ongoing," Poitras said, referring to the government's secret investigation of her. Risk proves to be a meditation on the costs of bearing inconvenient witness, for both subject and author.

Follow Brandon Harris on Twitter. Read more of his coverage of Cannes 2016 here.