Laura Poitras’ Risk

Robert Manne on Laura Poitras’ Risk

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Robert Manne

When Julian As­sange launched a cam­paign against Alex Gib­ney’s hos­tile doc­u­men­tary on Wik­iLeaks, We Steal Se­crets (2013), he ar­gued that Laura Poitras – an­other doc­u­men­tary film­maker, best known for her fierce crit­i­cism of post–Septem­ber 11 US foreign pol­icy – was mak­ing a far bet­ter film. Not long af­ter, Poitras found greater fame as one of the two peo­ple Ed­ward Snow­den turned to when he de­cided to re­veal the depth and range of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency’s spy­ing op­er­a­tions inside Amer­ica and be­yond, and then as the di­rec­tor of the Academy Award– win­ning film about him, Ci­ti­zen­four (2014). In May 2016, at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, Poitras re­leased an early ver­sion of

Risk, her film about Wik­iLeaks and As­sange. Ap­par­ently, it was broadly sym­pa­thetic. Re­cently, she re­leased the fi­nal ver­sion. As­sange re­gards this cut as both a per­sonal be­trayal and a threat to his free­dom. It is not dif­fi­cult to see why.

Poitras’ As­sange is obviously a highly in­tel­li­gent ab­stract thinker. In one of the only amus­ing mo­ments of Risk, a be­mused and bored Lady Gaga in­ter­views As­sange in his cramped quar­ters at the Ecuado­rian em­bassy in Lon­don. She asks him whether he loves his mother. He does. Does he love his fa­ther? As As­sange grew up with­out his nat­u­ral fa­ther he replies that that’s a more ab­stract ques­tion. Lady Gaga mis­un­der­stands him. Like fa­ther, like son, is her take. Al­though there are in Risk frag­ments from an in­ter­view where As­sange dis­cusses as­pects of his the­o­ris­ing on global revolution in the age of the in­ter­net, the shape of his think­ing is never re­vealed.

Poitras’ As­sange is also un­de­ni­ably coura­geous. He tells Poitras that life of­fers in­di­vid­u­als both risks and op­por­tu­ni­ties. Al­though in gen­eral he doesn’t be­lieve in mar­tyr­dom, the risk of in­ac­tion is high. We do not live for many days. All is lost if op­por­tu­ni­ties for ac­tion to im­prove the world are not seized. There is noth­ing in Risk that causes us to doubt that As­sange has lived ac­cord­ing to his word. Late in the film As­sange and his most im­por­tant sup­porter at that time, the young English­woman Sarah Har­ri­son, cal­cu­late the length of his prison sen­tence if ex­tra­dited to the United States. The fig­ure ar­rived at is 142 years.

Be­yond ab­stract po­lit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence and courage, how­ever, there is lit­tle about Poitras’ por­trait of As­sange that is at­trac­tive. The As­sange we see is para­noid. Poitras shows him talk­ing to one of his le­gal team in the safety of the forested grounds in Nor­folk, bristling with sus­pi­cion that, even there, they are be­ing spied upon. Poitras, who knows a great deal about the need for se­cu­rity, tells us that As­sange runs Wik­iLeaks as an in­tel­li­gence agency and that “he’s teach­ing me things about se­crecy I didn’t re­alise I needed to know”. Poitras’ As­sange is vain. We see his small team of sup­port­ers in Nor­folk cir­cling him, tak­ing turns to cut his hair. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, As­sange ex­am­ines his ap­pear­ance in a mir­ror closely. We wit­ness his fris­son of plea­sure be­fore an au­di­ence of ad­mir­ers or when be­ing filmed. Poitras’ As­sange is, in ad­di­tion, a bully. When one of his peo­ple, as he calls them, tells him that she agreed to be in­ter­viewed by three FBI agents inside a car, he tells her what a fool she is. He is also no­tably self-im­por­tant. In the open­ing scene of Risk, filmed in 2010, As­sange has con­vinced Har­ri­son to ring the US Depart­ment of State and ask to speak to Hil­lary Clin­ton, to warn of the im­mi­nent re­lease of 250,000 un-redacted diplo­matic ca­bles. Even­tu­ally, he hears back from one of Clin­ton’s lawyers. As­sange lets him know that he is do­ing the then sec­re­tary of state a favour. “We don’t have a prob­lem,” he ex­plains por­ten­tously. “You have a prob­lem.”

Ap­par­ently it is only in the fi­nal ver­sion of Risk that Poitras has in­cluded an in­ter­pre­ta­tive nar­ra­tion ex­press­ing her deep­en­ing dis­il­lu­sion with As­sange. In this nar­ra­tion Poitras won­ders why As­sange has al­lowed her to film so freely when he doesn’t ap­pear to like her. There is in fact no mystery. The kind of in­ti­mate ac­cess she was given was based on As­sange’s as­sump­tion about the kind of pan­e­gyric she would

make. Poitras tells us of night­mares where she has be­trayed As­sange. In the con­text of their re­la­tions, in­deed she has. Poitras ex­plains why her at­ti­tude to As­sange has changed. “This is not the film I thought I was mak­ing. I thought I could ig­nore the con­tra­dic­tions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They’re be­com­ing the story.”

What then are the con­tra­dic­tions? The dis­il­lu­sion with As­sange seems prin­ci­pally to con­cern his re­la­tions with women. The most me­morable scene in Risk in­volves a dis­cus­sion be­tween As­sange and one of his le­gal ad­vis­ers, He­lena Kennedy. She tells As­sange that, in re­la­tion to the al­leged sex­ual as­sault of two women in Swe­den, his line has to be that, while he recog­nises the se­ri­ous­ness of rape, he is not a rapist. She warns that he mustn’t treat the case as some mad fem­i­nist con­spir­acy. In pub­lic, As­sange agrees to toe this line. In pri­vate, how­ever, he in­forms Kennedy that he re­gards him­self as a vic­tim of “a thor­oughly tawdry rad­i­cal fem­i­nist po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion­ing thing”. In ex­pla­na­tion, he points out that one of his ac­cusers started “a les­bian night­club in Gothen­burg”. Kennedy is an­gry and ex­as­per­ated. “What’s set­ting up a les­bian night­club got to do with the price of fish?” Later, a male sup­porter who has gone to Swe­den to as­sess the lie of the land is told that ev­ery­thing would be speed­ily set­tled if As­sange agreed to meet the women. As­sange’s re­sponse im­plies that they are sim­ply spurned lovers. Is he be­ing sar­cas­tic? No, is As­sange’s re­ply.

Late in the film we dis­cover that As­sange’s most im­por­tant col­lab­o­ra­tor, Ja­cob Appelbaum, with whom we learn Poitras had a brief affair, has been ac­cused of se­rial sex­ual mis­con­duct, one of his al­leged vic­tims a close friend of Poitras. Re­vul­sion over Appelbaum seems to have com­pelled Poitras to con­front the con­tra­dic­tions in As­sange’s char­ac­ter and be­hav­iour – in­tel­li­gent, coura­geous and charis­matic cer­tainly, but also vain­glo­ri­ous, ar­ro­gant and ex­ploita­tive – that she had pre­vi­ously been strug­gling not to see.

We also learn that Poitras and As­sange fell out badly af­ter the Ed­ward Snow­den leaks. Poitras broke con­tact with As­sange for some months fol­low­ing her ar­rival in Hong Kong to film Snow­den. For his part, from his room in the Ecuado­rian em­bassy, As­sange rather mirac­u­lously en­gi­neered Snow­den’s es­cape. He despatched Sarah Har­ri­son to Hong Kong; she then ac­com­pa­nied Snow­den to Moscow and ne­go­ti­ated his asy­lum. As­sange wanted to pub­lish the Snow­den files in Poitras’ pos­ses­sion. “I tell him I can’t be his source,” Poitras says in voice-over. “I don’t tell him that I don’t trust him. He’s still yelling as I hang up the phone.” As­sange’s des­per­a­tion to have the Snow­den files and Poitras’ de­nial of ac­cess are the only sig­nif­i­cant facts re­vealed in Risk not pre­vi­ously known.

Re­cently, of course, in the story of Wik­iLeaks and As­sange, some­thing even more im­por­tant than the Snow­den affair has taken place. When Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence hacked into the Clin­ton cam­paign emails and those of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee in 2016, with the pur­pose of harm­ing her and help­ing her ri­val, the hack­ers chose Wik­iLeaks as their av­enue for pub­li­ca­tion in or­der to main­tain plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity. In the weeks be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the US me­dia – from Fox News to the New York Times – flooded the coun­try with in­for­ma­tion that Wik­iLeaks re­leased drip by drip. Trump him­self made use of this ma­te­rial on more than 150 oc­ca­sions. With­out the con­tri­bu­tion of Wik­iLeaks it is pos­si­ble that Don­ald Trump would not have been elected as pres­i­dent.

These events are cov­ered in Risk, but su­per­fi­cially, and with­out any foren­sic in­tent or at­tempt to place what has just oc­curred in the over­all as­sess­ment of the work of Wik­iLeaks and As­sange. This seems to me a fail­ure of nerve and an eva­sion. As­sange’s will­ing­ness to as­sist in the elec­tion of Trump is the over­whelm­ingly most dis­turb­ing ques­tion that all for­mer Wik­iLeaks sup­port­ers such as Poitras (and my­self ) must now pon­der.

In 2006, Julian As­sange es­tab­lished Wik­iLeaks as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion tai­lored to the new age of elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Ac­cord­ing to Wik­iLeaks’ foun­da­tional the­ory, cor­rupt state and cor­po­rate in­sti­tu­tions could be weak­ened and ul­ti­mately de­stroyed by the fear of whistle­blow­ers, whose iden­ti­ties could be kept se­cret by use of en­cryp­tion soft­ware. The fears of cor­rupt in­sti­tu­tions would force them to ex­pend en­ergy cov­er­ing their tracks, what As­sange called a “se­crecy tax”. Ac­cord­ingly, only morally and po­lit­i­cally fit state and cor­po­rate in­sti­tu­tions would thrive and sur­vive. What we have learned from re­cent events, how­ever, is that Wik­iLeaks was it­self vul­ner­a­ble to a rad­i­cal form of cor­rup­tion if the leaks it pub­lished came not from up­right whistle­blow­ers but from ma­nip­u­la­tive po­lit­i­cal ac­tors, such as the agents or in­ter­me­di­aries of an in­tel­li­gence ser­vice. There was quite sim­ply noth­ing in As­sange’s the­ory that might have dis­suaded him from co­op­er­at­ing with Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence in its clan­des­tine an­tiClin­ton, pro-Trump op­er­a­tion. A rev­o­lu­tion­ary movement born of ide­al­ism and the hope of cre­at­ing a bet­ter world has thus ended by as­sist­ing in the elec­tion of the most dan­ger­ous pres­i­dent in the his­tory of the United States.

I am writ­ing this re­view less than a week af­ter Trump with­drew the United States from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord. The strengths and weak­nesses of Julian As­sange form the prin­ci­pal sub­ject mat­ter of Risk. How­ever, it is not the real or sup­posed de­fects of his char­ac­ter but a fa­tal flaw in his think­ing – in which Laura Poitras shows lit­tle in­ter­est and ap­pears not to un­der­stand – that can best ex­plain As­sange’s mod­est con­tri­bu­tion to the cur­rent cri­sis of civil­i­sa­tion that we now face.

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