Filmmaker Laura Poitras takes on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in her new documentary “Risk,” playing this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Her latest film is a follow-up to her 2014 Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” about whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Poitras filmed “Risk,” which premiered at Cannes last year, over a six-year period. The new, recut, post-Cannes version covers the period from when WikiLeaks first gained notoriety in 2010. The cause was its leaking of the “Iraqi War Logs” video of American soldiers killing unarmed Iraqis and two Reuters journalists, and almost 400,000 Army field reports of killings. It caused an international furor. The information came from Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a transgender woman who was convicted by court-martial and given a 35-year sentence, commuted by President Obama in January 2017.
A nonprofit organization run by volunteers, WikiLeaks serves as a conduit for whistleblowers to publicize information anonymously and reach a global audience. Important questions are whether WikiLeaks represents a new, Internet-based form of journalism, and if it may contribute to dissemination of fake news. Following release of the “Iraqi War Logs,” the U.S. opened a secret grand jury investigation of Assange, an Australian and the head of the website, for espionage and conspiracy, even though his organization leaked the video rather than originating it. Among the many other communications encrypted on the Internet that WikiLeaks has released are classified U.S. State Department cables, and, most disturbing, a host of emails from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Assange was put under house arrest outside London, pending extradition deliberations. He considered moving to Sweden, but his lawyers warned him that country might extradite him to the U.S. In 2012, Assange sought asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London; he has been there ever since.
One of the complicating factors in Assange’s notoriety is that two Swedish women accused him of sexual harassment and rape in 2010. Assange denied the charges and called them part of a “radical feminist conspiracy.” Rumors of misogynist behavior by other WikiLeak associates have circulated since Assange’s accusation. Swedish prosecutors recently dropped their investigation surrounding rape allegations.
Poitras’ interviews depict Assange as an arrogant, camera-flirting personality, enjoying hero worship by his followers. His behavior is often secretive, and he seems to run WikiLeaks like an intelligence agency. The filmmaker uses a cinéma vérité approach, letting the camera frame the narrative. Occasionally she uses production notes to insert observations, including, “This is not the film I thought I was making … Contradictions are becoming the story.” She also confesses that she had a liaison with a WikiLeaks associate, information that undermines her objectivity. The soundtrack helps create an ominous sense of impending doom.
The filmmaker has a reputation for making well-respected documentaries, including Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country,” about occupied Iraq, and “The Oath,” about two Yemenis in the war on terror. Poitras may, however, have met her match in “Risk.” The film sometimes meanders through quotidian details like Assange getting a haircut, exercising, disguising himself for his trip to the Ecuador embassy, chatting with his mother, or reclining at the beach. She shows him hiding with one of his volunteer lawyers in forest underbrush. She repeatedly uses shots of embassy windows to reinforce Assange’s confinement and police surveillance.
The story of Wikileaks is a highly complex one, and Poitras has trouble incorporating it adequately as the background for her portrait of Assange, a complex personality himself, worthy of greater exploration. Nevertheless, the story of Assange and WikiLeaks is one of the most important of our times, and “Risk,” an important introduction to them.
Information and tickets for “Risk” and other Film Center movies are available at mvfilmsociety.com.