Hatewatching Julian Assange

Julian Assange is in the Ecuadorian embassy. It is a small room, one in which he lounges with Lady Gaga and boxes with a trainer. Like me, you might have expected something larger – with French windows and the London skies beyond.

Lady Gaga sums it up pithily – “It looks like you’re in college”

Not a prison – but some kind of institution.

There is an impromptu meeting in this room of Assange’s ‘comrades’ – his gang of entitled and enlightened activists saving the world through code. Assange pops in, his checked bathrobe open at the front and he is greeted by heckling from Jacob Applebaum, Assange’s second and creator of the secure Tor browser.

“What the fuck is that – you don’t even have a bathrobe that fits you?”

Then Assange’s partner and co-conspirator Barbara Harrison shoos him out saying he has ten minutes to get ready. It is perhaps the only light moment of camaraderie and revelry amongst the bro-nerds. This is what I would have liked to experience through the film – from a very safe distance of course.

There is another delicious moment in this boxy room – a woman in soft focus who could be Laura Poitras (the filmmaker) lingering in the corner. Someone invited the steel auto-adjust eye of her fembot camera, but not her.

Oddly the first time I hear of Laura Poitras’s film Risk, chronicling the last few years of Julian Assange’s life and struggle with the USA government – is in excited babble in my work slack. One of my colleagues is in the film and had no inkling that this would happen. This scene is laudably mentioned in a review of the film (Cybersexism in 3 acts) – and it is a series of tight close ups of activists and techies from the Middle East, all busy on their laptops and devices. They look a bit corralled into a meeting where Jacob Appelbaum presides. He is talking knowledgeably to them about how people are being watched constantly in the Middle East, his stories about surveillance and encryption spill out like so much weed stashed in his nerd-pant back pockets. One of the things he mentions is how everything and every email that goes in and out of Syria is tracked.

“People are practising unsafe computing”

Yes, Poitras – we all got the irony of this moment where Applebaum, later accused of sexual harassment, is visibly making people uncomfortable. But lets pause for double irony here too – that this footage was taken without asking those same people.

In an earlier scene Applebaum is in Egypt at a conference with telecom giants – clearly he has been invited to speak as a respected (read white) expert. Applebaum holds centre stage (mainsplaining?) about how the telcos gathered here allegedly supporting free speech had in fact worked for the Mubarak regime during the Jan 25th revolution. There are a few carefully smothered smiles from some of young Egyptians gathered. This scene is oddly shot – the interjections and responses to Applebaum are from a person speaking English with an Egyptian accent, whom we never see speaking. Only his offscreen words discipline and butt with Applebaum’s.

There are odd political lapses in the film and a strange emptiness of images towards the second half – presumably when Assange became less friendly to the filmmaking process. In the credits that roll at the end, I felt a marginal sisterhood with Poitras when I see her name repeated as editor, camera and director.

The internet has gifted us with a word for what I am doing here – something that is perhaps intrinsic to humanness – this side eye looking. A peripheral and constant watchfulness about who is speaking, who is not. What is their affiliation, their skin colour, their caste, their race, their gender, how do they look, how close or how far are they from you or your interests, their relative rank and the obvious file they fall into in this room, in this world.

While Poitras wants to exploit our tendency of being caught up in these hungry spectator games – her gaze seems to alight only on gender discrepancies, to the extent of ignoring all others – not ever seeing her own privilege, and blind to race or Islamophoia.

Sometimes Assange makes absolute sense.

He points out the difference between the swell of unregulated social media that made up the Arab spring, and the slowness produced by encryption and anxiety that could not produce such a moment. And then he is just as easily obnoxious – doing nonsensical feminazi bashing. His idea of a defense in his sexual assault case is to attack the character of the woman who accused him – still a sound legal strategy, but a terrible public one in the world of liberal outrage.

He says – these charges are an American Democrat conspiracy

Hmmmhmmm, sort-of believable.

In fact a radical feminist conspiracy.

What the fuck! Really??? Has he met a radical feminist – the kind that exclude trans women from bathrooms and feminist mailing lists. Does he think that they hold secret meetings in the Marriott hotel, wear black and BDSM collars, and swear on the SCUM and Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn manifestos.

But I am still torn – between hatewatching a liberal saviour, and wanting to flinch away from the hand that Poitras has placed on my shoulder. What is she if not yet another liberal feminist saviour telling me how to watch and who. Poitras overlays the film with a continuously playing soundtrack powerfully used to create eerie trails and shadows. In a relatively light moment Assange is laughing and saying that he became a household name and celebrity only after his sex scandal. He says he should revisit that as a strategy every few years to stay in the news – and his partner and co-leaker Harrison shudders and says with a charming British accent -

I think it was me he was joking to. I just diiiiiieeeeeeeed a little bit inside

It is not the exposing of Assange as a megalomaniac that is troubling (oh my god, I so didn’t know that already – rolleyes). It is the naivete of a certain feminist vision that we become blind to other women – we don’t truly see Assange’s partner Harrison or his Guatemalan lawyer Renata Alvi. Both of who deal with the phobias and anxieties of a man placed under such heavy watch and pressure.

Perhaps it is the beholden task of being dominant caste in India that makes me hesitate, fumble and go back over my experience – to see who it is that I have missed or what. So often we assume that women backing men who have been accused of assault have no choice – they were driven into this position and are not thinking and making decisions for themselves. But what if their decisions are based on a vision in which the rest of us, people like Laura, like you or me – other feminists look false, blinkered and often blind to our own privilege.

Dangerously innocent of our stake in the game.

Poitras is no Kris Kraus (author of I love Dick, based possibly on a brief dalliance with cult author Dick Hebdige). Poitras doesn’t unmask her own moments of brief sexual frisson and dalliance with Applebaum, she just mentions it in her production-notes voiceover. Why? Were they not film worthy?

What Kraus’ bitchy and contradictory words do in ‘I love Dick’, the way they slash across the page in a fury of desire of aching and wanting – of wanting to be that very figure that you desire. Kraus is a woman occupying through force and fuck the position of the intellectual man.

But that is not Poitras – she is more subtle, read insidious. For the sake of art or film, she doesn’t blaze a trail of brilliance across our hearts searing into place a criticism of the very male and treacherous occupation of the intellectual sphere. That is what is unacknowledged in the film – Poitras’ own drive to ambition, that anxious ride to heroically completing a film.

The voiceover production notes do NOT say –

“February 2017.
Trump has won. My film will be more relevant now.
I have not managed to become Assange, not through the film. But I try through other ways. I ignore 90% of my inbox now. I have an assistant but..
I don’t have a partner, at least not one who bashfully repeats my press releases to the world, or a friend who turns up each time I am in trouble.
Or a world that acknowledges my importance. Not yet.
I hope when Assange sees me, really sees me, maybe files a case against me – I feel closer .. to him.”