MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Risk-y Business: Laura Poitras’s New Documentary on Julian Assange

Laura Poitras’s new documentary, Risk, about Julian Assange, uses a fly-on-the-wall technique—but there’s a fly in the ointment.

Shot over the course of six years, Poitras’s unique personal access enabled her to create an intimate portrait of Assange, who founded WikiLeaks as a revolutionary new media means of making public otherwise “restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption,” to quote from WikiLeaks’ website. But late breaking events during 2016 caused Poitras to pivot on the version of Risk she’d screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Not even Orson Welles retained final cut, but Poitras—who won the Best Documentary Academy Award for her 2014 Edward Snowden film Citizenfour—went on to create another, more up-to-date edition of Risk. Since Poitras started shooting Risk in 2011, the Assange and WikiLeaks saga has had more twists and turns than the road to Hana, Maui. The version of Risk now being released is reportedly far more critical of Assange, who Poitras quotes as concluding that the film will threaten his freedom. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Assange has severed ties with Poitras, presumably ending her entrée to WikiLeaks’ inner circle.

Poitras’s film covers Assange’s arc after his 2006 founding of WikiLeaks, when he became a kind of high-tech archangel of the left, revealing video footage and other documents exposing US war crimes in Iraq (widely believed to have been leaked to him by US soldier Chelsea Manning). In Risk, the enigmatic Assange comes across as a technically savvy man on a mission, who pioneered a method for whistleblowers to anonymously divulge classified info about government and corporate wrongdoing.

Of course, this inevitably put Assange and his self-described “multi-national media organization and associated library” in the crosshairs of the powerful. Even supposedly “liberal” members of the media were gunning for him.

In 2010, following the release of WikiLeaks’ Collateral Murder video exposing a US helicopter gunning down innocent, unarmed Iraqi civilians, former Democratic consultant Bob Beckel said on the Fox Business News network: “A dead man can’t leak stuff. This guy’s a traitor, he’s treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I’m not for the death penalty, so … there’s only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”

Risk follows Assange’s trajectory as he became, literally, one of the most hunted men alive. Convinced that a US Grand Jury in Virginia was secretly conspiring to lock him up, as Manning was after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act, the WikiLeaker took refuge in 2012 in the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of a sex-related nature. Assange contends the charges are a ruse.

The image that emerges of Assange is complex, contradictory, controversial, and often troubling. When being privately counseled by a female attorney to be cautious about the language he has used to publicly describe his female accusers — invoking terms such as “radical feminists” and “lesbians” — Assange persists in doing so, while Poitras is filming it all.

Last November, Assange provided his side of the sexual accusations, which purportedly involved consensual relations with two Swedish women around the same period of time, asserting in a statement: “You have subjected me to six years of unlawful, politicized detention without charge in prison, under house arrest and four and a half years at this embassy.” That, he added, “is already far longer than the maximum penalty I could ever theoretically face in Sweden” in connection to the alleged sexual violations.

Risk asserts that Assange’s colleague, Jacob Appelbaum, was accused of being abusive and Poitras, who speaks from time-to-time in voiceover, contends she had a brief romance with Appelbaum, who behaved abusively to her associates (although not Poitras herself) after their affair ended. And who knows what the relationship between Assange and the younger, seemingly starstruck Sarah Harrison — the legal researcher he dispatched to Hong Kong to assist Edward Snowden on his flight to Moscow — actually was.

Although formal charges have not been lodged against Assange, the sex-related accusations have dogged him since 2010. But the role WikiLeaks played during the presidential race — which inspired Donald Trump to proclaim his “love” for the organization — has compounded and accelerated Assange’s fall from grace in the eyes of many left-leaning Americans.

Around the time of the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails by Democratic National Committee members (and later by Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta) indicating the supposedly impartial DNC tipped the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton over self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders. These devastating disclosures led to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and allegations that WikiLeaks was acting on behalf of Vladimir Putin to defeat Clinton and put Trump into the White House. Indeed, at a May 2 Women for Women International luncheon, Mrs. Clinton denounced what she called “Russian WikiLeaks” as a major factor contributing to her electoral defeat.

Although Risk doesn’t dwell on these damning accusations, Assange — who is usually tight-lipped about sources — is cited as insisting Russian state actors played no role in his disclosure of DNC and Clinton camp emails. He does appear on camera criticizing Clinton for being too hawkish, while he derides Trump for his unpredictability.entary gives audiences much to jeer and cheer about. Those intrigued by WikiLeaks and its founder will find Risk to be a compelling chronicle, as I did. But others may be bored stiff. There’s lots of talking heads footage, as there was in Citizenfour, which largely consisted of a handful of people talking to each other in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Unlike Michael Moore, Laura Poitras arguably hasn’t found a style of filmmaking that makes highly political, complicated content entertaining and accessible to viewers who don’t already care about the subject matter. But Risk does include a rather amusing, unexpected interlude when rock diva Lady Gaga interviews Assange inside the Ecuadorean embassy. This is ironic because Manning smuggled out Iraq and Afghan war logs on a CD he marked “Lady Gaga.”

Risk includes WikiLeaks’ ongoing CIA document dump that began in March, exposing the spy agency’s sensitive hacking tools, just as Snowden revealed NSA top secrets like the Prism program. The documentary closes with US Attorney General Jeff Sessions making threats against WikiLeaks — which, now that he’s in power, Trump may no longer be so enamored of.

Risk begins its national rollout in cities across America May 5 and is scheduled to play on Showtime during the summer. But by then — who knows? — a new chapter could be added to this still-unfolding story, and Poitras may cut yet an

With its up-close examination of Assange’s detractors and champions, this 95-minute documother version to air on the cable TV network. In the meantime, considering Mrs. Clinton’s recent attack on WikiLeaks and FBI Director James Comey’s deriding it as “intelligence porn” during his May 3 testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee, Risk is riding a wave of free publicity as it is being theatrically released.

Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic based in Los Angeles. This originally appeared at

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2017

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