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RISK, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles

Trust is a ma­jor is­sue in Laura Poitras’ screen por­trait of Wik­iLeaks founder Ju­lian As­sange. “It’s amaz­ing to me that he trusts me,” she says in an early voice-over, “be­cause I don’t think he likes me.”

Poitras laces the doc­u­men­tary with ver­bal in­serts from her pro­duc­tion jour­nal, and later on she re­turns to that theme. Re­port­ing on a heated phone call with her sub­ject, she says, “I don’t tell him that I don’t trust him,” and she re­lays As­sange’s in­sis­tence that she make it clear in the film that they “have fallen out.”

Poitras — who has been in U.S. law en­force­ment’s cross hairs at least since Ci­ti­zen­four, her 2015 Os­car­win­ning por­trait of NSA whis­tle-blower Ed­ward Snow­den — doesn’t trust her gov­ern­ment ei­ther. She de­scribes be­ing in­creas­ingly ha­rassed by se­cu­rity at air­ports, and com­ing home to find her apart­ment door open. “Did I for­get to close it?” she won­ders in the film. “Or are they send­ing me a mes­sage?”

The film­maker has been work­ing on her As­sange film for more than a half-dozen years, since be­fore

Ci­ti­zen­four, and her at­ti­tudes to­ward her sub­ject have al­legedly changed over the course of the process. The film that was shown at Cannes last year is said to have been more ad­mir­ing. The ver­sion that comes out to­day, in the af­ter­math of Trump’s pres­i­den­tial vic­tory and al­le­ga­tions of col­lu­sion be­tween Wik­iLeaks and Rus­sian gov­ern­ment-backed hack­ers to sway that elec­tion, tem­pers that sen­ti­ment to a de­gree.

The pic­ture of As­sange that emerges in this film is of a man who has changed the world, and who is in­creas­ingly co­cooned and iso­lated by his own sense of self-im­por­tance as well as by ex­te­rior cir­cum­stances. As­sange has been a vir­tual pris­oner for the past five years in Lon­don’s Ecuado­rian Em­bassy, where he was granted asy­lum to pre­vent his ex­tra­di­tion to Swe­den on 2010 charges of sex­ual as­sault. As­sange and his lawyers sus­pect that if he goes to Swe­den to face those charges he will be ex­tra­dited to the U.S. for trial here.

The fog of those sex­ual charges hangs over this film al­most as po­tently as the at­mos­phere of in­ter­na­tional es­pi­onage and ex­po­sure of po­lit­i­cal se­crets on which Wik­iLeaks and As­sange have come to world promi­nence. Poitras records a meet­ing be­tween As­sange and his Lon­don lawyer, He­lena Kennedy. Kennedy tries to ad­vise her client on how to re­spond pub­licly to his Swedish ac­cusers, and ends up rolling her eyes at As­sange’s sex­ist re­marks, as he sug­gests that the women are part of a rad­i­cal fem­i­nist plot. There is also a seg­ment on sim­i­lar charges against an As­sange as­so­ciate, tech ex­pert Ja­cob Ap­pel­baum. (Poitras had a brief re­la­tion­ship with Ap­pel­baum.)

Early in the film, we see Ap­pel­baum shak­ing things up at a Cairo panel fol­low­ing the Arab Spring, con­fronting Twit­ter and other tech giants on the panel, which he charges re­stricted in­ter­net ac­cess dur­ing the up­ris­ings and later claimed credit for be­ing cham­pi­ons of free­dom. But later on, Ap­pel­baum comes un­der the fire of sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions from co­work­ers. Both he and As­sange in­sist that there is noth­ing to the ac­cu­sa­tions.

As­sange is not a win­dow of trans­parency when it comes to the press. In an over­head shot, we see him leav­ing court and mak­ing his way through a for­est of jour­nal­ists, speak­ing to no one. Be­fore dis­patch­ing her to rep­re­sent him at a press con­fer­ence, he in­structs his aide and girl­friend Sarah Har­ri­son how to han­dle per­sonal ques­tions about “the girls.” “Do the fem­i­nine thing,” he says, and ad­vises her to act of­fended. It was Har­ri­son who ac­com­pa­nied Snow­den on his Wik­iLeaks-spon­sored flight to Moscow, and she now can­not re­turn to Eng­land un­der the ab­surd threat of ter­ror­ist charges.

In the pri­vate ses­sions with As­sange, he is boy­ishly charm­ing but aloof, and projects a feel­ing of su­pe­ri­or­ity. Al­though her in­ti­mate ac­cess man­ages to pen­e­trate it a few times, he main­tains a but­tonedup pri­vacy.

“I don’t be­lieve in mar­tyrs,” As­sange says. “But I be­lieve peo­ple should take risks.” The level of risk should be de­ter­mined by the level of re­ward an ac­tion of­fers. He has no use for the mantra of think­ing glob­ally but act­ing lo­cally. He de­rides lo­cal ac­tion as “com­pletely in­con­se­quen­tial.”

Poitras’ style is steady and ob­ser­va­tional, a fly on the wall without much com­ment. She in­tro­duces a few flour­ishes, such as a num­ber of shots early in the movie that peek through win­dows into As­sange’s gath­er­ings and sug­gest a sort of spy-movie idea, but over­all there’s lit­tle in the way of cin­e­matic ex­cite­ment. One ex­cep­tion is a scene fol­low­ing the piv­otal court rul­ing that he can be ex­tra­dited to Swe­den. Poitras’ cam­era shows him in a Lon­don ho­tel room, dis­guis­ing him­self with dyed hair, col­ored con­tact lenses, and a leather jacket, and then pur­sues him on a har­row­ing mo­tor­cy­cle ride through traf­fic as he flees to the Ecuado­rian Em­bassy for asy­lum.

The odd­est and most en­ter­tain­ing seg­ment, in­serted without com­ment by Poitras, is an in­ter­view con­ducted by Lady Gaga with As­sange in his Ecuado­rian sanc­tu­ary. Gaga, dressed like a witch and lolling in a chair with a dig­i­tal cam­era, asks him ques­tions like “What’s your fa­vorite food?” and whether he ever feels like cry­ing.

“This is not the film I thought I was mak­ing,” Poitras ad­mits in one of her jour­nal in­serts. “I thought I could ig­nore the con­tra­dic­tions.” It’s not clear why a film­maker with her tal­ents would have wanted to ig­nore the con­tra­dic­tions; but hap­pily, she does not.

— Jonathan Richards

De­clas­si­fied: Ju­lian As­sange

Han­dling the truth: di­rec­tor Laura Poitras

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