Risk *** / *****
Directed by: Laura Poitras.
Written by: Laura Poitras.
During the time Laura Poitras was filming Risk, her new documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she also shot, edited and released her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour – which of course, won her an Oscar. That film was a tightly contained, almost thriller, in which Snowden spends a few days in a Hong Kong hotel room with Poitras and a few journalists, explaining all the data he has leaked to them, just before their stories hit the airwaves. It also helped that while there are many contradictory feelings about Snowden out there (and in my case, my own head) – he really does seem to be a fairly earnest, straight forward kind of guy. What you see is what you get, and he’s not really trying to play Poitras, or anyone else. Risk, and Assange, is a different animal as it was shot over the course of seven years, and in fact more footage has been shot and added since the film debuted at Cannes in 2016. Poitras’ feelings towards Assange – and other figures in the film – changes as well. This makes for a very messy film – but a fascinating one.
This isn’t a film to watch if you don’t know anything about Wikileaks or Assange. That would be Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which does a good job running down their history. This is a more intimate film, in which Poitras simply points her camera at Assange as he goes about his days, and films. She wonders why he’s giving her so much access – he doesn’t seem to like her very much she says – and yet, there she is when he and a colleague try and get then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her that all of the State Department’s communication were about to be leaked – not by them, but because they themselves have been compromised (I cannot decide if egomania, brazenness or sheer idiocy that the pair call up the State Department and ask to speak to Hilary Clinton). At first, it feels like Poitras admires Assange and WikiLeaks, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, who also works there, and who we see loudly demanding accountability from Egypt’s telecommunication companies after the Arab Spring. If Assange always seemed like an egomaniac, perhaps doing good work, Appelbaum seemed like a good guy through and through. By the end, of course, her outlook on both changes drastically.
It’s fairly early in the film when Assange gets charged with rape with Sweden – and faces an extradition warrant back to Sweden, which he appeals as high as he could go in England, and when he still loses, starts to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy where he remains today – claiming it’s all just a ruse to get him back to Sweden, where they will end up sending him to America on more serious charges (I’ve never quite understood if that was the case, why America wanted him sent back to Sweden first – why not just get the Brits to send him back – but no, matter). Assange, of course, says the whole thing is a conspiracy against him, and he’s completely innocent. He may well be (since he won’t go back and face charges, we’ll never know) – but in the film he does go on a pretty toxic rant about radical feminists, and lesbian nightclubs, that wouldn’t be out of place on a MRA Forum. That scene is fascinating to watch the women around him, and how they react (or try not to).
Risk ends up becoming a study in contradictions – something Poitras admits in the film, as she didn’t know that was the movie she was making. It is about Assange who wants to expose everyone’s secrets but his own – about Appelbaum, who Poitras admits having a brief affair with – also being accused of abuse and sexual assault, while trying to project a more wholesome image of Assange (he does okay at first – but there are a few more cringe-y moments later in the film). While Assange lets Poitras back after the Snowden affair, he never forgave her for not letting Wikileaks have any of the information – instead allowing it to go the mainstream media. As Hilary Clinton’s emails get leaked, by Wikileaks, Poitras wants to know if he got them from Russia – and he won’t say, although he clearly hates Hilary Clinton.
You can make you want of Edward Snowden and what he did – I’m still conflicted myself – but it wasn’t really about him, and he knew it. For Assange, everything is about him – he masks it behind his ideology, that again, you can agree with or not, but he’s always at the center of it.