Laura Poitras, “Risk” (2016)
Filmed over six years, its focus on the life of Julian Assange since he founded Wikileaks and obtained and released thousands of US government documents of evidence of American war crimes in Iraq since 2003, Laura Poitras’ “Risk” could have been an intriguing character study on what motivates Assange to continue doing what he does in spite of the enormous threats to his life and freedom from the US and its allies. Assange’s freedom of movement has been severely compromised since allegations of rape and subsequent rape charges were made against him by two Swedish women and the Swedish justice system respectively, and the UK prepared to extradite him to Sweden to face those charges; Assange feared such extradition would open the way for Sweden to then extradite him to the US to face espionage charges in a closed court with a grand jury, so he sought asylum (and was granted it) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Yet Assange and Wikileaks continue to release documents that expose US government duplicity, corruption and more war crimes.
We certainly get a sense of the paranoia that surrounds Assange holed up in the embassy and in the Norfolk country house where he lived previously, subject to a night curfew, and of the doubts, struggles and in-fighting within the Wikileaks community and its following. Unfortunately the film comes across as something of a mess that seems to gloss over many things or treats them in a desultory way despite the fact that the time-period it covers features some stupendous events: the so-called Arab Spring in 2011; Bradley Manning’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and imprisonment for giving Wikileaks documents on American war crimes in Iraq; Edward Snowden’s leaking of thousands of National Security Agency documents, demonstrating widespread and deep government surveillance of US citizens and others abroad with the co-operation of telecommunication companies and governments, to Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill of The Guardian newspaper; and Wikileaks’ own release of US Democratic National Committee emails and emails by Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff showing how Clinton bullied the Democrats into making her their Presidential candidate over Bernie Sanders and various other actions of hers that demonstrate her unfitness for the US Presidency. Viewers not familiar with the topics touched on in the film will be mightily confused and will wonder how they all relate to one another. At times the documentary descends to the level of soap opera melodrama as Poitras admits in her voice-over narrative that she had an affair with Jacob Appelbaum who had been leading the Tor Project, a cyber-partner of Wikileaks. After the affair broke up, Poitras hears that Appelbaum apparently engaged in sexual abuse of another woman yet no charges were made against him.
Assange himself comes across as a complex, conflicted and contradictory figure, at times very remote yet passionate about what he fights for; at times arrogant and egotistical but concerned for Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning as the US private is treated horrifically while in prison and then at trial. Assange appears not to take the rape allegations and charges against him very seriously. Poitras seems to bounce from one viewpoint of Assange to another without ever being able to decide which viewpoint describes him best. The people who surround him are either gushy about him or fall out with him and don’t want anything more to do with him; it seems that Assange excites very extreme reactions in people.
For someone who had so much access to Assange and Wikileaks, Poitras has ended up making a film that says very little about Assange that people don’t know already. How Assange copes with the threats against him, the world closing in on him; how and why he continues on his personal crusade to bring truth about the use and misuse of power by political elites to the public despite the personal cost; what he believes is his future: all these issues that Poitras could have brought up in her film that could have made it great are missing.