Julian Assange had given filmmaker Laura Poitras unprecedented access for over five years, and she had hundreds of hours of footage in her possession. But last summer, the WikiLeaks co-founder started to have second thoughts. “Presently, the film is a severe threat to my freedom and I’m forced to treat it accordingly,” he texted her.
Now we know why.
Poitras’ new documentary, “Risk” — following up on her Oscar-winning “CitizenFour,” on Edward Snowden — provides perhaps the most unvarnished, intimate look into the persistence, smarts, self-righteousness, and misogyny of the man who, despite being holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for nearly five years, has earned the ire of the most powerful governments on Earth.
It’s actually the second version of the film, the first having screened at Cannes in May of 2016. Reviews of the original described it as a sympathetic portrayal of Assange and WikiLeaks work in general, but then came the reports of sexual misconduct by an Assange confidante and a rock star in the hacker space, Jacob Applebaum, whom Poitras had been romantically involved with after the shooting of the film. Poitras then felt obligated to further probe the culture of misogyny that’s infiltrated the hacker community and that Assange has perpetuated.
“This is not the film I thought I was making,” she narrates in the movie, screened for the press this week before its May 5 theatrical release. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions; I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong; they are becoming the story.” (Remaking the film also allowed her to add the high-drama chapter of Assange’s influence in the 2016 election with WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of emails that damaged Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.)
Poitras captures the misogyny in several scenes, including Assange’s real-time reaction to the 2010 accusations from two women in Sweden that he raped or sexually molested them. “An actual court case is going to be very, very hard for these women,” he tells her smugly.
“They will be reviled forever by a large segment of the global population, so I don’t think it’s in their interest to proceed that way,” he continues, before suggesting they might strike a bargain where he “would apologize for anything that I did or didn’t do that [pause] hurt their feelings.”
“There is something disturbing in how misogyny gets kind of excused, not just in the hacker community but in lots of communities,” Poitras told VICE News.
In another scene discussing the sexual assault case, Assange leaves his own female lawyer speechless when he says he privately believes, but is savvy enough not to say publicly, that one of his accusers was running “tag team” on him with a female police officer as part of a “radical feminist political-positioning thing.”
The accusations — which Assange denies — came in the months after WikiLeaks received over 200,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables from then-Private Bradley Manning and got swept up into a vortex of international power politics where Assange said he had concerns about receiving due process and potentially being extradited to the United States.
Though compelled to display his misogyny, Poitras also conveys her admiration for Assange’s work via attempts to correct some public misinterpretations about it.
For example, she pierces through the narrative that Assange was single-mindedly trying to help Donald Trump and hurt Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Rather, her portrait shows a self-righteous man willing to flip the bird to whoever is getting in his way.
“We have a definite warmonger in the case of Hillary, who is gunning for us, and in the case of Trump, we have someone who is extremely unpredictable,” Assange tells WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison in a scene from the spring of 2016. “That’s going to be quite a bad outcome in both directions.”
Poitras told VICE News in an interview that Assange is “ideologically consistent while being increasingly under siege, but he’s read and interpreted differently based on which ideological forces are benefiting from his publication at the moment.”
That dynamic has never been more apparent than over the past six months, as Assange has gone from alt-right folk hero of the Trump campaign to Public Enemy No. 1 of the Trump administration.
When WikiLeaks steadily published batches of emails every day from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta last fall, then-candidate Donald Trump told a crowd, “I love WikiLeaks,” ultimately citing the publication over 100 times in the final month of his campaign. Fox News’ Sean Hannity said Assange had “done the USA a great service,” and former grand wizard of the KKK David Duke tweeted to Assange: “America owes you, bigly.” using a Trump term.
But after WikiLeaks published thousands of documents describing CIA surveillance tools in March, Trump’s new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, in an April 13 speech labeled the group a “non-state hostile intelligence service” — the “non-state” descriptor often reserved for designating terrorist organizations.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed up on April 20 by saying that arresting Assange was a “priority” and CNN reported the Justice Department was preparing criminal charges, something the Obama administration hadn’t even done in its aggressive prosecution of leaks because WikiLeaks was thought to be under First Amendment protection.
“I’m terrified about the threats we are hearing from the attorney general,” Poitras told VICE News. “It’s very scary to see a publisher being threatened in that way.
Assange’s near future is uncertain, and Poitras says she can’t even begin to guess what the next chapter will bring. Though he’s defiant, she says, the isolation and international pressure are taking a “physical and psychological toll.”
As Assange acknowledges to a State Department lawyer after his site’s security has been compromised in 2011: “This is an example of when you push people into a corner, they stop behaving in a step-by-step methodical manner because of the threats that they are under.”
In the six years since, Assange has been separated from allies like Harrison, trapped for years in an embassy, without seeing the sun or the outside world, and is now a main target of the Trump administration. If Assange is anything, he is a man increasingly cornered.