Laura Poitras constructs a dizzying and contextual portrait of Julian Assange.
Documentarian Laura Poitras has spent the better part of the last decade creating work that interrogates current systems of global surveillance and secrecy. Her film Citizenfour (2014), focused on Edward Snowden and the data he leaked concerning NSA surveillance tactics, earned her the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In 2016, Poitras had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, entitled Astro Noise, that incorporated documentary footage, among other media, to invite visitors to engage with global surveillance materials in intimate ways. Initially screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Poitras’ latest feature-length documentary Risk zeroes in on Julian Assange, the troubling founder of WikiLeaks.
Risk is a difficult film to assess because Poitras has made two distinct cuts of it. The first cut was shown at Cannes. The second cut is the one that was released commercially in 2017. The first cut of the film drew parallels between United States persecution of Assange and Poitras and was supposedly more sympathetic toward Assange. The second cut of the film no longer holds this sympathy. The film instead provides more footage of Assange’s response to the accusations leveled against him. In this way, Poitras lets Assange himself demolish the sympathy of the audience by allowing us to see more of him and to see him in more varied contexts.
However, Poitras committed a major breach of ethics and strayed away from documentary filmmaking, entering territory of cinéma vérité, by engaging in a romantic affair with Jacob Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks collaborator and developer for The Tor Project. In the second cut of Risk, Poitras owns up to this affair in a voiceover. This moment of confession comes toward the very end of the film, at a point when a large group of victims have already publicly revealed Appelbaum’s frequent abusive treatment of women.
Despite this potential conflict of interest, Risk remains an important document. Without telling her audience how they should feel about him, Poitras allows Assange to metaphorically hang himself over the course of the film simply by revealing his thoughts on himself and his position in the world. When asked about the two women in Sweden who’ve accused him of rape and sexual assault, Assange responds by claiming they’re part of a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’ against him. Assange goes so far as to joke around about it. In a move that feels all too common given current events, Assange is nonchalant, casual, and outright derogatory toward his accusers as he actively uses his power to elude persecution.
Throughout the rest of the film, Assange persists in being snobbish, scummy, and generally obnoxious. He presents a godlike self-image when he refers to the world as his garden and claims it’s his responsibility to take care of any weeds he notices. He exudes snobbery in the most surreal scene when Lady Gaga comes to the Ecuadorian Embassy to interview him personally. Gaga chose to meet and interview Assange in 2012 at the urging of rapper M.I.A. When Gaga asks Assange about his emotions, he ducks and dodges, insisting that it doesn’t matter how he feels. Later, she asks him about his father and he responds by saying his father is ‘abstract’. He also says that they shouldn’t pretend for even a minute that he’s a ‘normal person’.
Assange says halfway through the film that he doesn’t believe in martyrdom or that true martyrs exist. However, he proceeds to adopt an attitude only befitting of a martyr for every single minute of his screen time. He claims not to be a martyr, but views Risk as a threat to his freedom and thinks anyone raising accusations against him is part of an international conspiracy. Although appearing worthy of sympathy, and perhaps even a little charming, during the film’s opening third, Assange is little more than a deranged and sexually abusive asshole by the conclusion.
This begs the most important question of all: is it possible to separate a man from his mission and vice versa? Although men like Jacob Appelbaum and Julian Assange spearhead efforts to increase international transparency and dismantle apparatuses of global surveillance and lies, they are rapists and abusers whose behavior we cannot support. WikiLeaks is responsible for publishing the information obtained by figures like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. This kind of information allowed the public to see how organizations like the NSA were lying through their teeth to the global community and to the other branches of the United States government. But what are we supposed to do with men like Julian Assange? Men who gain a great deal of influence and power by martyring themselves in the name of the people, but then use this to discredit those whom they’ve abused?
Risk is written and directed by Laura Poitras. The film was released on May 5, 2017 and distributed by Neon.
Photo credit: Voice of People Today.