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New WikiLeaks Documentary ‘Risk’ Tries and Fails to Make a Point About Misogyny

Laura Poitras can’t quite seem to pull together the threads of sexual assault allegations against Julian Assange and Jacob Appelbaum in her newest film.

by Sarah Jeong
May 8 2017, 5:06pm

In Risk, a lawyer for WikiLeaks advises Julian Assange on how to publicly handle the sexual assault allegations against him. She tells him to take sexual assault seriously, to acknowledge that it's a problem in society, to not blame the victims, to make it clear that men who sexually assault women are bad—but to (gently, carefully) affirm that he is not one of them.

He nods, and then sighs that it's all so stereotypical of feminism.

The lawyer cringes as Assange talks about how one of his accusers founded "the lesbian nightclub" in Gothenburg. It explains everything, you know.

Risk is a film that doesn't know what it wants to be. It's five half-formed ideas wriggling out of the remains of what was once a pro-WikiLeaks first draft. And the most cogent strain—and it's not very cogent—is misogyny.

Other reviews have already noted that the film is somewhat compromised by Laura Poitras' relationship (acknowledged in the film as a "brief" thing in 2014) with Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor developer and digital privacy advocate close to Julian Assange and depicted heavily in the earliest scenes of the film. In 2016, Appelbaum left Tor amid accusations of what an overtitle calls "bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct." It's an odd gloss on a very large body of complaints that includes a horrific story of repeated rape in full view at a house party, of a victim who is too intoxicated and yet manages to vocalize her protestations more than once.

Poitras shows Assange and his friends in the early days, between the rape allegations and exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, laughing at YouTube videos while they give him a haircut.

But Poitras does spend a fair amount of time showing Appelbaum and Assange behaving badly in front of her. She shows Appelbaum aggressively using the analogy of safe sex and a condom at a digital security training for activists, as Poitras zooms in on women activists in hijab looking increasingly uncomfortable with his remarks. She shows Assange ruminating to the camera about how two accusers is a "problem," that if it were only one accuser he could attack her character and make her out to be a "bad person." She shows Assange, smiling at WikiLeaks editor and right-hand woman Sarah Harrison, as he says that the "sex story" is what made him a household name. It makes sense, he says, because sex sells papers. He should try to get into a sex scandal every six months.

The camera doesn't move away from Assange's face, but you can hear Harrison's palpable discomfort in her demurring replies.

These are intentionally chosen vignettes, selected from a treasure trove of remarkable footage generated from unparalleled inside access. Poitras shows Assange and his friends in the early days, between the rape allegations and exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, laughing at YouTube videos while they give him a haircut. In another scene, Assange puts in colored contacts and dyes his hair and his beard inside a hotel room, then hops on a motorbike and flees to the Ecuadorian embassy.

Most startlingly, Poitras also shows Assange and Harrison on the phone, urgently trying to get ahold of then-Secretary Hillary Clinton at the State Department, to warn her about the incoming publication of hundreds of thousands of unredacted cables after the master password to their files is exposed. "You're not at the level to speak to her," says Harrison to Assange, covering up the receiver.

The startling events she captures on the camera are likely only a small sampling of the footage she has amassed since she began the project in 2010, before the rape allegations. "This isn't the film I thought I was making," she says in an voiceover that reads aloud from her production journal in those earlier years.

What is maddening is that Poitras is very, very close to a trenchant and provocative film about gender politics, about monsters and predators embedded inside important struggles. Because she flinches from connecting all the dots, Jacob Appelbaum's story feels tacked on, as artificial of a post-script as the scenes from Clinton's nomination at the Democratic National Convention and President Donald Trump's eventual victory.

It's instead a movie about WikiLeaks made by someone who can neither detach herself from the story, nor fully insert herself into it.

Poitras stops shy of connecting the Appelbaum scandal with Assange's own sexual assault accusations, and she refuses to even acknowledge the gender politics of the 2016 election at all. But that's the elephant in the room, lurking beneath the disconnected compilation of footage: The commonality between Assange, Appelbaum, and Trump is that they have all been accused of rape.

In Citizenfour, Poitras deviated slightly from her usual detached style by reading from emails sent to her by Snowden. She deviates further in Risk by admitting her relationship with Appelbaum, and revealing her own deteriorating relationship with Assange. But for a movie that is shaped so heavily by her personal feelings, she fails to commit to being a character. She instead seems to unintentionally project herself onto WikiLeaks key player Sarah Harrison and Tor developer Erinn Clark (now at First Look Media, alongside Poitras). Both start off as true believers. Clark can be seen early on, laughing and smiling as she cuts Assange's hair in an intimate setting among friends— friends that include Appelbaum. (Disclosure: Clark is a personal friend of mine.)

The footage of Harrison is fascinating, but she does not evolve as a character. She remains close to Assange and devoted to their mission, only very briefly showing any feelings about the sexual assault allegation.

Clark, on the other hand, is heading up a panel at hacker conference HOPE towards the end of the film, discussing the damaging effects of Appelbaum on their community. One female developer, off-camera, describes how she has never contributed to the Tor Project because of the many stories she had heard about Appelbaum over the years. Clark's expression seems stricken.

Risk is stuck between a movie where Harrison is the protagonist, and a movie where Clark is the protagonist. It's instead a movie about WikiLeaks made by someone who can neither detach herself from the story, nor fully insert herself into it. The final cut suffers as a result. It's a pity because the footage itself is remarkable; one can't help but hope she revisits her material in the future.