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‘Risk’ Is a Documentary About Becoming Disillusioned With Julian Assange

After spending four years filming the WikiLeaks founder, Laura Poitras still has more questions than answers.

by Katherine Gillespie
13 June 2017, 9:29am

This article originally appeared in VICE Australia

Risk is a documentary about Julian Assange, and it's a revealing one. Within an hour and a half, you'll re-frame your understanding of global politics over the past decade. Of how one man—Bond villainesque in hairstyle, ambition and moral code—has been at the centre of all of it. You'll also feel let down, because Risk refuses to delve as deep as you know it has the opportunity to. Within minutes, director Laura Poitras establishes that the work she has made is uncertain of itself, ill-at-ease. Decisions have been made, necessarily and at the last minute, upon receiving new information that has dramatically altered her perception of her subject and those who surround him.

We know Poitras from her Oscar-winning documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour. That movie was actually an offshoot of this one. Four years ago Poitras decided upon Julian Assange as a subject, and managed to gain the WikiLeaks founder's trust to the extent that he allowed her almost unfettered access to his day-to-day activities before and during his prolonged stay in London's Ecuadorian embassy. This was the main project, and Snowden—who reached out to her—was a welcome distraction. Making a documentary about Julian Assange, it turns out, isn't easy.

"They've hated every version of this movie," Poitras tells me over the phone. She's referring to Assange and his employees, who invited the filmmaker and her camera deep into their inner sanctum but have been displeased with the results. "And what they're upset about are the scenes where he talks about the women."

Assange with former girlfriend and WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison

Ah yes, the women. Several accusations of sexual misconduct are what led Assange to seek asylum and avoid extradition to Sweden. But avoiding extradition to Sweden was vital in order to avoid extradition to the United States, where Assange faces a potential death penalty due to alleged criminal activities surrounding WikiLeaks. To be clear, Poitras objects to those latter allegations.

"There's a difference between the organisation and Julian as a person, and from a journalistic perspective I really value the work that WikiLeaks has done," she explains. "I've documented the Iraq war and Guantanamo and they've contributed enormously to publishing around those issues. I do have disagreements with them and some of their choices, particularly not to redact names when those names are not public interest. But in terms of the publishing, I support it. What I don't support is some of the things you see in the film. Character issues."

Above all else, Risk is a personal and honest journey into a documentary maker's disillusionment with her subject. The "character issues" she refers to include a scene where Assange dismisses the allegations against him as a feminist conspiracy, while his female employees look on in horror. Some people might take exception to Assange for other reasons, like his role in the US election result. For Poitras, it's all about the internal culture of misogyny at WikiLeaks—the film also explores the numerous sexual allegations against the publisher's former employee Jacob Appelbaum, another figure Poitras once admired.

Privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum

"For me it's sad in both cases. You want to know that those people who you agree with ideologically are also standing for the same sort of values in their personal lives, but it's not always the case. It's not the first time where we've had social movements with men in power where you look at those internal relational questions. I don't think that it's that rare. A lot of social movements where their internal gender dynamics are in contrast with their external social justice beliefs," she explains. Women being let down by men whose ostensibly liberal values fail to align with their real-life actions? It's a universally recognisable feeling. "Yes, I think so too. It's both disappointing and familiar."

Risk tackles a difficult question. Can someone's pursuit of the greater good put their personal flaws on ice? We can admire these men—Appelbaum, Assange, their collaborators and imitators—and despise them at the same time. We can either stack up the allegations against them or weigh them against each other. The former option would suit the United States government; the latter would suit Assange. But Risk doesn't make any allegations against Assange that he doesn't make himself.

"I never set out to be a film that was an attack on Julian or a threat to his freedom, all I tried to do was make an honest film. Quite frankly it was shocking to me when Julian was so upset, because it's his own words. And he knew I was filming! It's not like there wasn't a camera there."

Assange exiting court with lawyer Amal Clooney

But Assange seems impossible to know or understand, even if you spend four years in his presence. The most memorable shot in Risk acknowledges this by depicting him walking out of court flanked by Amal Clooney and an intense media scrum, face completely inscrutable except for a subtle and almost indistinct righteous smugness that has become synonymous now with men who work and play on the internet. It's an absurdly gorgeous bird's eye view of the Wikileaks founder bogged down in reporters screaming his name while he remains cool and calm, without remorse.

Risk is a dark and troubling viewing experience, and no wonder. We're living in uncertain times, and this just might be the film we deserve to chronicle them. As a documentary it feels shaky and a little incomplete, which becomes all the more strange with the awareness that Poitras had four years' worth of up-close footage to scrounge from. There is a concerted focus on recent events—it has been edited under the shadow of the US presidential election result, and the leaked revelations that may have unhinged it, after all.

"This is a film I began with a lot more optimism in terms of what was happening [on the internet] and the work Julian was doing. And I still support the work, that hasn't changed, but are a lot of darker things that have emerged," she says. "I started with this moment about how the internet is democratising, you have the Arab Spring and you have this momentum. But now we have this new moment where the internet is being used and gamed in all these different ways...now it just feels that the kind of use of the internet for surveillance and manipulation feels very overwhelming."

For Poitras—who describes Hillary Clinton as a "horrible candidate"—the ability of WikiLeaks to influence the US election is troubling for larger reasons than the Trump presidency. "I'm interested in this moment that we're living in where we don't know who's playing who," she says. "We have state actors who are trying to game elections, we have Julian saying that he doesn't believe his source is a state actor, and that's possible. Although it's also possible that he's not telling us everything he knows. That's the reality we're living in right now, where everyone seems to be gaming everyone else."

Assange during one of the film's many one-on-one moments

Like all documentary makers, Poitras is interested in capturing a historical moment. And lucky for her, the moment she's chosen is in many ways the one that matters most right now. "When I first started to talk about this film in 2015 and 2016, before the presidential election, people were like, 'We don't even really remember WikiLeaks!' but now history has caught up. Obviously Comey has just testified about the impact of what they published was," she says. "It was all very complicated, but in the end I'm glad that the film captures this shift of not just time but mood."

You absolutely cannot blame Poitras for becoming distracted by Assange's personal failings while filming Risk. She tells me she felt like she had no choice but to focus on them, once she knew what she knew. But it's a shame, because his public achievements are so interesting, and so extensive in their influence. And the director thinks so too.

"I do feel that Julian is a significant historical figure. In what he's done and his thinking, and how he's changed the face of journalism. How he anticipated that we were entering an era of mass surveillance and massive leaks. That digital technology would change what happens, that the internet was going to make it much harder for journalists to do their jobs. That platform he created in 2006, most newsrooms currently have—an anonymous way to submit information using encryption. That, to me, is fascinating."

VICE is presenting a screening of "Risk" this Thursday June 15 at Dendy Newtown for Sydney Film Festival running until June 18. Click here to win tickets.

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