RISK: Julian Assange, Exposed?
Though with potential, Risk is ultimately an unoriginal look at Julian Assange, and pales in comparison to Poitras' past work.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, there is a slight chance that you might not have heard of Julian Assange. For the rest of us, Assange has been in and out of the media spotlight in various capacities, but has always remained somewhat of a mystery to the general public.
Founding WikiLeaks in 2006 rocketed Assange to a sort of celebrity status, and the organisation has since been responsible for some of the biggest leaks of government information globally ever since. The name Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are synonymous, there is not one without the other and both have been heralded (most vocally, by fans) as defenders of democracy, freedom and journalism.
Risk is the result of ten years of director Laura Poitras’ filming with Assange and WikiLeaks, recording the events between the rise of WikiLeaks, the sexual assault allegations Assange is charged with, his asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy and how the motivations behind WikiLeaks have changed. Poitras is not new to this world.
Perhaps most notable for her Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour, Poitras was essentially embedded within the world of Assange and WikiLeaks for a number of years. As Citizenfour explains, Poitras was with Edward Snowden (along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan McAskill) in Hong Kong when he explains why he leaked NSA documents. Poitras was invited by Snowden, as a filmmaker with experience and connections in the world of hacking, and has since spoken out about attempts by the U.S. Government to seize her equipment, stop her at borders and spy on her activities.
“I’m Calling From the Office of Julian Assange…”
Risk opens with a phone call. It’s 2011 and Julian Assange, assisted by Sarah Harrison (editor of WikiLeaks) are trying to get the White House to put them through to Hillary Clinton. Assange explains it’s a matter of urgency. Documents and sources are about to be leaked, and not by WikiLeaks. “Let me be clear,” Assange states, full of bravado for the camera, “We don’t have a problem – you have a problem”.
So begins the story of Julian Assange. He is a man full of contradictions, so that Poitras often feels out of her depth with the film she is trying to make. Poitras has stated that making Risk was not a happy experience, revealing within the documentary that by the end of the process the two of them had fallen out entirely.
Even still, Poitras’ access to Assange throughout the documentary is astounding. Risk includes interviews with Assange, fly-on-the-wall footage, filming of WikiLeaks meetings, and Poitras is even granted access to Assange’s meetings with his PR team (a move which was probably pretty foolish, in hindsight). Poitras captures the many different faces of Assange – the hacker, the comic, the politician, the leader, the son, the ‘bad boy’ and many many more. Throughout all of his various personas, Assange always remains ‘the actor’.
As with Citizenfour, Poitras keeps tight control over the shot. The majority of Risk takes place at the WikiLeaks HQ in Norfolk circa 2011/12 or at the Ecuadorian embassy, and Poitras makes the most of the seemingly homely surroundings, often cutting to household items, or the English countryside out of the window. With the exception of one piece of archive footage (a leaked video of U.S. soldiers gunning down Iraqi civilians), Poitras keeps Risk firmly in the present, with Assange in the frame at all times. It’s a stylistic choice by Poitras which keeps engaged with the story at hand, and helps us understand how events really unfolded, which in turn keeps the documentary feeling very focused.
The fundamental issue with Risk, though, is that it cannot quite decide what it wants to be. Poitras uses her ‘production’ notes as a voice-over, explaining her motivations or confusions at certain points throughout the film. She notes that she is no longer making the film she thought she was, and that she thought she could ignore the contradictions within Assange himself. These insights into Poitras’ thought processes and her personal feelings toward Assange end up being far more interesting than Assange himself.
Assange is media savvy and very smart in front of a camera. Despite Poitras’ best efforts, Assange never stops performing. He often looks at the camera, satisfied that he is being filmed and gives very little away in interviews or conversations. The blatancy of Assange’s facade means that we know he is performing, but we never get to see behind the mask. Poitras recognises this, but Risk still persists on trying to uncover the ‘real’ Assange – a task that it will never achieve.
The closest to any sort of uncovering is the interview between Assange and Lady Gaga (I know right, I was as surprised as anyone). In a moment of pure genius, Gaga asks Assange a series of seemingly vapid questions, trying to elicit some kind of emotional response. Though Assange never answers the questions directly, his responses give a previously unmatched insight into the person he thinks he is versus the person the world actually sees.
At one point Gaga asks what his favourite food is, and Assange answers with a long-winded spiel about going to Malaysia, following up a few minutes later with ‘you have to understand, I am not a normal person’. Assange clearly believes he is unlike everyone else, that he is untouchable and unique – something which has been hinted at but never quite exposed before.
It’s a breakthrough moment, and a sequence which is bizarrely funny too.
When Assange’s sexual assault allegations come to light, a third film emerges within Risk. It’s revealed that both Assange and Jacob Appelbaum (a core figure in the hacking community and WikiLeaks) have both been charged with sexual assault. Assange’s contempt for the women bringing the charges coupled with the concerning way in which both men see the allegations as nothing more than a smear campaign, feels pretty endemic of bigger issues with powerful male leaders in the hacking community. Poitras starts to walk a little way down this road, talking personally about abuse that a friend had suffered at the hands of Appelbaum, but never takes the film onto this journey completely.
It’s understandable – Risk is a film about Julian Assange’s journey, and the allegations are only a part of that – but it also feels like a sorely missed opportunity to talk about a much wider issue that should be brought to light.
We’ll Always Have Gaga
Risk is always going to draw comparisons with Citizenfour. They are both quiet documentaries which feature a prominent figure in the digital leaking community, both of whom are associated with WikiLeaks, and both of whom are considered enemies of the U.S. Government.
With this comparison, Risk is never going to come off well. Edward Snowden is a likeable character, easy to identify with. He’s open, honest, and his story is moral and heroic. Assange, on the other hand, is fundamentally unlikable and guarded. Risk tries to peel back the facade, but ultimately fails to succeed in giving us anything particularly new or radical – apart from the Gaga/Assange interview which will probably be remembered as one of the greatest documentary sequences in recent cinema.
How do you think Risk compares to Citizenfour? Are there are any other films about Julian Assange that dig a bit deeper?
Risk is currently screening in selected cinemas, and is available to stream on Amazon Prime & iTunes.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.