On Friday I saw the new film Risk produced and directed by award-winning documentarian Laura Poitras, who won the Academy Award for Citizenfour, the film about Edward Snowden and his leaks. The focus this time is Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and unlike the earlier one, the narrative structure of this film is, to say the least, a bit confused. But that is not due to the lack of skill of Poitras but due to the fact that after she started filming it, the story went off in many directions and she too became part of it.
She started filming back in 2010 when WikiLeaks catapulted into the public consciousness by releasing thousands of documents relating to the Iraq war and antagonizing the US government that immediately started treating it as an enemy. The release of the Collateral Murder video given to them by Chelsea Manning showing the massacre by US helicopter gunships of a group of people that included two AP journalists on an Iraqi street, and the attack on a car containing children that stopped to help the wounded, was particularly shocking.
Poitras envisioned the initial story to be straightforward enough, to portray Wikileaks and its head about what and why and how they were doing what they were doing. But soon the story became much more ambiguous. The accusations of rape and sexual coercion brought by two Swedish women resulted in Assange being sought by the Swedish government for extradition back to that country for questioning, though no charges have yet been filed, was seen by Assange as the first step to being extradited to the US where a grand jury was already meeting in secret to indict him, possibly under the draconian Espionage Act which pretty much deprives the defendant of most legal rights. She was given extraordinary access to film him during the time when he was under restricted movement and living in the home of a supporter in Norfolk and later when he was granted political asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London in August 2012 where he remains to this day.
Poitras became part of the story herself when midway through in 2013 she was contacted by someone claiming to want to give her important confidential information. At first she thought this was a trap, possibly by the CIA, to get at Assange through her. It turned out to be Edward Snowden and that story got folded into this one because WikiLeaks became involved in getting Snowden out of Hong Kong. She did not tell Assange about her involvement in that story until it broke and he was angry that she and the others had decided to use the mainstream media that he thinks is a tool of the governments to release the information, rather than through groups like WikiLeaks. That caused a major rift between the filmmaker and subject, a relationship that was already somewhat uneasy since she did not quite trust or like him nor he her.
A further complication was that involving Jacob Appelbaum, a internet security activist working for WikiLeaks and Tor. Poitras had had an affair with him before but had broken it off. He is shown training people in the Middle East about how to securely communicate with each other and challenging the heads of major internet providers in Egypt for shutting down Twitter during the Arab Spring that brought down the Mubarak government. He too was later accused of sexually abusing women and left those two groups.
In periodic voiceovers, Poitras injects herself into the story to express her concerns and misgivings as she goes along, and describes how she used to be regularly stopped when entering the US and her equipment taken from her and searched. She has an audio of FBI officials describing her as a documentarian who is hostile to the US government. The harassment at the border stopped only after Glenn Greenwald publicized it in an article in the Salon in 2012.
But Poitras’ work has been hampered, and continues to be hampered, by the constant harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics to which she is routinely subjected whenever she re-enters her own country. Since the 2006 release of “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her (on the handful of occasions where they did not meet her at the plane, agents were called when she arrived at immigration). Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke. They have exhibited a particular interest in finding out for whom she works.
She has had her laptop, camera and cellphone seized, and not returned for weeks, with the contents presumably copied. On several occasions, her reporter’s notebooks were seized and their contents copied, even as she objected that doing so would invade her journalist-source relationship. Her credit cards and receipts have been copied on numerous occasions. In many instances, DHS agents also detain and interrogate her in the foreign airport before her return, on one trip telling her that she would be barred from boarding her flight back home, only to let her board at the last minute. When she arrived at JFK Airport on Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, she was told by one DHS agent — after she asserted her privileges as a journalist to refuse to answer questions about the individuals with whom she met on her trip — that he “finds it very suspicious that you’re not willing to help your country by answering our questions.” They sometimes keep her detained for three to four hours (all while telling her that she will be released more quickly if she answers all their questions and consents to full searches).
What about Assange himself? In the film he comes across as extremely self-contained, who seems to see himself as involved in a global battle with governments and their agencies and who feels that people have a right to know what their governments are doing in secret in their names. He feels that any day that is not spent exposing the workings of governments is a day wasted. Poitras says that he runs WikiLeaks like a spy agency, keeping it tightly compartmentalized so that it is more secure against infiltration.
While Assange is measured in the way he speaks and is undoubtedly smart and thinks strategically, his views about women are disturbing. He insists on asserting that the Swedish women who brought charges against him are part of a ‘radical feminist’ movement, a defense that misogynists are prone to make, even as his lawyer and other advisors try to get him to tone down his language and be more conciliatory. He comes across and analytical but cold, for whom the mission is paramount. Add in the charges against Appelbaum, and this film adds to the sense that although women are heavily involved in WikiLeaks and internet activism (Sarah Harrison plays a prominent role in WikiLeaks and in this film, and also accompanied Snowden on his flight to Russia), they have to be on their guard in that culture.
So this story is a complicated one, partly because the subject this time Assange is more ambiguous and less likable than Snowden, and unless one knows the outlines of the WikiLeaks saga one might be confused. It is reported that Assange and the people around him are not happy with how he is portrayed in this film, and at the very end he says that the film will be damaging to him.
On the lighter side, one can savor the sudden appearance of Lady Gaga who turns up at the Ecuadoran embassy to interview Assange, and enjoy how this highly cerebral and cagey person, who says that his own feelings are not important and who seems to be always on his guard, responds to her somewhat inane questions, such as whether he ever cries, even when he is happy. The brusque answer is no.
Here’s the trailer.