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