WIKICREEP — Laura Poitras’ Portrait of Julian Assange
One of the fundamental risks of documentary filmmaking is the uncertainty of the outcome. Best intentions collide with the messy unfolding of reality or as Laura Poitras confesses in the angsty account of her souring relationship with Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, “the contradictions become the story.”
Early on in RISK, which begins in 2010, Poitras wonders why Assange is letting her get so close to him and why he trusts her with his story when he doesn’t even seem to like her. With My Country, My Country and The Oath, Poitras carved out an impressive body of work that explored the dark realities of the global War on Terror and the growing U.S. surveillance state after 9/11. Assange may have figured that he and Poitras were kindred spirits and fellow travelers, on the same side of journalism’s mission to confront abuses of power and champion whistleblowers…or in the very least, she would burnish his credentials and sweeten his mythology. Lest we not forget, Assange was chosen by readers of Time as 2010’s Person the Year way back when and a darling of those of the left-wing political persuasion. In any case, it seems a decision they both might now regret, particularly Assange, who claims that the film is a direct threat to his freedom, and Poitras who had the misfortune to train her lens on him while he dodged sexual assault and rape allegations. Rather than a cogent call to government transparency, RISK warns us that the self-appointed guardians of democracy carry their own human flaws and knotty personal motivations, especially in the case of someone who comes off as calculating and unctuous as Assange. There are some things we don’t want to know, and yet still we must. In the tangle of contradictions, we may discover hidden and complex truth.
During the NYC screening I attended, an agitated and breathless Assange supporter got up during the Q&A and more or less accused (in his huff, it was hard to discern his exact grievance) Poitras of being part of the conspiracy against Wikileaks, perhaps the same “radical feminist conspiracy” that Assange names in the film or maybe an extension of the smear campaign conducted by elements of the intelligence community. To her credit, Poitras never chases these sensationalistic dead-ends for dramatic effect, rather the film sustains a grim and queasy tone as we witness Assange alienate those around him with his casual misogyny and glib dismissiveness toward the sexual allegations that dog him and his organization. Those expecting answers to those questions, new revelations about government abuse or Assange’s involvement in Russian interference in the 2016 US election might be let down, instead we get an anguished portrait of Poitras’ growing disillusionment with the gender politics and cult of personality around Assange’s leadership.
To make matters worse, Assange isn’t the only one the film who comes off as a creep in RISK. Our introduction to Wikileaks and Tor Project’s Jacob Applebaum comes post-Arab Spring as he confronts Egyptian telecom bigwigs at a conference on their home turf. His giddy chutzpah is on display as he accuses the executives of censoring communication during the revolution. Admiration soon curdles into disgust as Applebaum makes inappropriate comparisons between cybersecurity and safe sex to a group including Egyptian female activists. It is later revealed that he is accused of numerous allegations of sexual abuse from women throughout the hacker community, and he resigns from Tor Project. Complicating matters further for Poitras’ objectivity, she herself admits to a relationship with Applebaum, who went on to harass one of her friends when she terminated the affair.
Poitras has an uncanny knack for being in the right place to capture moments of history as they unfold. She is there as Assange plans his escape to the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He dyes his gray hair and puts in color contacts while dressed up in a biker outfit, a cigarette dangling from his lips. In another film, we would be cheering on his heroic and hammy subterfuge, but in RISK, the opposite is the case, one finds oneself hoping he gets caught and then feeling kind of guilty about it.
It must have been a welcome relief for Poitras when filming was interrupted by a cryptic communication from Edward Snowden. When she lands the story of the century, she keeps it from Assange, himself holed up in the embassy. In lieu of Poitras’ camera, Assange gets a visit from Lady Gaga in one of the most surreal interviews ever conducted. Gaga coaxes Assange out of his jacket into a white T-shirt. She fires superficial questions at Assange as if he were a pop star, and he answers in his strange, abstract way. Tellingly, when Gaga asks how he feels, Assange is lost for words...
Ultimately, the final straw is Poitras’ refusal to be a source for Assange regarding Snowden and keeping him in the dark. Assange’s bitter relationship with The Guardian is no secret, and he clearly viewed this action as a betrayal and a choosing of sides. In voiceover, Poitras confirms as much when she relates a nasty phone call from Assange, who is still shouting when she hangs up.
Despite all the rancor, Poitras never stops trying to understand Assange’s motivations and give him a chance to elevate himself above the “contradictions”. At the end of the film, she him an opportunity to explain why he does what he does. Instead of saying — as he has done elsewhere — that Wikileaks’ mission is to publish truths regarding corruption and abuses conducted by the powerful in secret, Assange uses a bizarre metaphor about gardening that further elaborates his megalomania.
Regarding Assange’s behavior during the 2016 election, it remains unclear if he was a useful idiot for the Russians and indulged in personal revenge against Hillary Clinton. The only clue Poitras’ film offers is when Assange discusses what documents his team have on Clinton versus Trump. Assange is surprised that they don’t have more dirt on Trump considering his business dealings. What is clear is Assange’s desire to keep himself and Wikileaks in the spotlight, perhaps less out of egoism and more out of fear, that without it, his life is truly at risk. Publish or perish.
RISK is a curious companion piece to CITIZENFOUR, a soul-searching mea culpa about fractured allegiances and shrinking utopian hopes of the Internet to protect democracy. By showing the human flaws and autocratic dynamics of a rogue outfit like Wikileaks, the film indirectly affirms the necessity of journalistic institutions and their checks and balances.