Still largely unknown in 2010, Poitras has since become famous for her 2013 Oscar-winning film Citizenfour. The latter appears to have been a much easier project: Edward Snowden's weeks in a Hong Kong hotel room deciding how to release the pile of confidential documents on his laptop offered a relatively open personality, a manageable plot, and built-in Hitchcockian suspense.
By contrast, over six years of claustrophobic enclosure, Assange appears elusive and distant while telling the camera things his lawyers really wished he wouldn't.
"Sometimes I can't believe what Julian allows me to film. Ego, yes, but also brave," Poitras says in a voiceover early on. "He's managing his image, but also being vulnerable." For example, in a conversation with legal counsel Helena Kennedy QC, as she tries to convince him that saying he's the victim of a radical feminist conspiracy is "not helpful to you", Assange responds: "To say it publicly, it's not helpful." Kennedy laughs in incredulous frustration: "I'd like to persuade you that it's not true as well."
Rambling and scattered
It's one of the more coherent moments in a rambling and scattered movie. When Poitras begins, it's mid-2010, Assange is staying at a friend's Norfolk estate, the 700,000 leaked diplomatic cables are being released unredacted onto the web, and Assange and researcher Sarah Harrison are calling then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton's office to "help you solve your problem".
By the film's end in early 2017, Assange remains in London's Ecuadorian Embassy while the CIA director declares Wikileaks a "hostile non-state intelligence agency that is not protected by the First Amendment". In between: the sex allegations and the call that lured Poitras to Hong Kong to film Snowden.
Poitras began filming, therefore, more or less at the moment when Wikileaks became really famous; 2011 saw myriad books cover its early history: see, for example, Becky Hogge's Barefoot into Cyberspace, Heather Brooke's The Revolution Will Be Digitised, or any of the many others. In 2013, Alex Gibney released the film We Steal Secrets, which recounts Wikileaks' history from its founding to shortly before Chelsea Manning's trial. Gibney depended heavily on news footage and interviews with academic and intelligence experts, army personnel who served with Manning, former Wikileaks insiders, and former partner journalists. Assange himself declined to be interviewed, and posted annotated corrections.
Early in Risk, Poitras introduces a second major transparency advocate: Jacob Appelbaum, then a core member of the Tor Project. In Norfolk, Assange mulls the pragmatic necessity of sacrificing principles in the medium term for long-term gain. In Cairo, Appelbaum directly challenges Egyptian ISPs' complicity in shutting down internet access during the Arab Spring. Soon after, the sexual allegations against Assange arise, followed by accusations of sexual harassment against Appelbaum, and Poitras says, in voiceover: "This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story." This isn't wholly true: Poitras made a choice.
Incoherence aside, there's an awful fascination in watching Assange mull strategy. At one point, he suggests that it's a pity there are two accusers: "If there was one, you could go, 'she's a bad woman'. I think that would have happened by now. Because it's two, it's much harder." Harder, that is, to discredit and smear them.
So this is the movie: Poitras watches Assange wrestle with the accusations, leave Norfolk and skip his trial in favour of holing up in Kensington. Lady Gaga does a bizarre interview. A panel at the 11th HOPE discusses the sickness of a community in which sexual harassment happens. Assange releases a load of other people's emails. Donald Trump is elected. Chelsea Manning is released. The US declares Wikileaks a hostile non-state. Near the end, Poitras recounts an exchange of messages with Appelbaum in which they both want a different ending for her film. It's not clear that she ever finds a story to end.
Read more book and film reviews
- CitizenFour, film review: The Snowden revelations, as they happened
- Astro Noise, exhibition review: A film-maker's response to the surveillance state
- Move Fast and Break Things, book review: Where did the internet go wrong?
- https://www.zdnet.com/article/move-fast-and-break-things-book-review-where-did-the-internet-go-wrong/To Be a Machine, book review: Disrupting life itself
- Zero Days, film review: Stuxnet, secrecy and the new era of cyber war