Julian Assange helps Laura Poitras tell his complicated story in the revelatory documentary Risk

Author: Alissa Wilkinson | Vox ||

The Citizenfour director crafts an unsettling portrait of Wikileaks and its founder.

Update: On May 19, Swedish authorities dropped sexual assault charges against Julian Assange. However, British authorities stated that his arrest warrant still remains active.

Risk, the new documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is a frustrating and complicated film about a frustrating and complicated subject. That’s exactly what it needs to be — and exactly what makes director Laura Poitras a perfect match for her subject.

As an observational filmmaker, Poitras largely forgoes the talking-head interviews and narration that provide context in more traditional documentaries. She simply records what’s happening, often with little or no commentary, insisting that viewers pay attention to what they’re seeing and how she’s put the footage together. She doesn’t tell viewers what to think; she gives them the tools to form their own opinions.

Such detachment is a necessity when Poitras trains her lens on subjects whose work is politically, morally, and ethically complicated — like Assange, and like Edward Snowden, the subject of her 2014 Oscar-winning Citizenfour. Poitras strives to avoid passing judgment on them, while also acknowledging that her personal involvement can skew the way she sees their stories. Her approach invites scrutiny, encouraging viewers to be as involved in her films — by thinking about her subjects’ statements, weighing their actions, and taking note of contradictions — as she is.

In 2011, when she was midway through shooting the film that would become Risk, Poitras was contacted by a mysterious source who turned out to be Snowden. She traveled with journalist Glenn Greenwald to interview him in Hong Kong, a detour that became Citizenfour. Now she’s finished the WikiLeaks documentary, in which Snowden makes a brief appearance (WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison was instrumental in helping Snowden leave Hong Kong and gain asylum in Moscow).

Julian Assange, putting on a disguise in the documentary RiskPraxis Films / Courtesy of Showtime
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, putting on a disguise before fleeing to the Ecuadorian Embassy in Laura Poitras’s new documentary, Risk.

Like Citizenfour, Risk plays more as a character study of Assange than a straightforward, informative look at WikiLeaks. After seven years in production, the film arrives in theaters at a time when WikiLeaks, once embraced by the left, has gone through a strange shift, with some accusing it of influencing the 2016 US presidential elections — or at least being okay with helping authoritarian leaders, especially in Russia. As such, many viewers will approach the film with preconceived ideas about WikiLeaks — and Risk won’t make the matter any simpler.

Instead of fitting the story into any familiar political narrative about WikiLeaks, Poitras presents an uncomfortable look at the complicated interplay of Assange’s personal goals, the goals of his organization, his ego, and the then-outstanding sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden — all of which contribute to a sometimes admiring, sometimes infuriating portrait.

Risk does anything but lionize Assange, who has been living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, having sought and received asylum there. Poitras’s uncompromising, commentary-free approach allows Assange to simply talk about his work and his ideas, as well as display the more unsavory aspects of his character.

But Risk doesn’t try to take Assange down, either. Though Poitras disagrees with some of WikiLeaks’ actions, the director — whose work often critiques the secrecy of governments and institutions, as well as the surveillance state — also clearly appreciates WikiLeaks’ goals.

Laura PoitrasCharles Sykes/Invision/AP
Laura Poitras.

Perhaps appropriately, Risk’s production was almost as complicated as its subject, as news developments kept delaying the film’s completion. A cut of Risk actually screened at Cannes last summer, two weeks before sexual abuse allegations were brought against one of its subjects, journalist and activist Jacob Appelbaum.

This threw Poitras and Risk into a quandary: She’d briefly been romantically involved with Appelbaum a few years prior, and she knew she couldn’t leave that detail out of the film, given the allegations. So she ended up recutting Risk to incorporate that information — as well as briefly mentioning Appelbaum’s abusive actions toward someone close to her — as voiceover. It’s a self-revelatory moment that carries a lot of weight in the film, and coupled with some other added bits of voiceover drawn from Poitras’s production diaries, it gives the audience permission to experience the moral complexity of the film and its subjects.

Poitras also had to pull the film back from press screenings briefly at the end of April, after the US attorney general said Assange’s arrest was a “priority.” After a few days of revision to add the information to the end of the film — where it packs a narrative punch — Risk finally premiered in New York at the beginning of May.

The day after the film’s premiere, I spoke with Poitras at her production office in Lower Manhattan about why she calls WikiLeaks a journalistic organization, what filmmaking can do that journalism can’t, and whether transparency is even an attainable goal.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve said you set out to make a film about journalism with Risk.

Laura Poitras

I still feel I made the film about journalism. But then other issues and themes kind of emerged, which I didn’t necessarily anticipate. In many different ways, I started out filming [WikiLeaks] sort of as an outsider. Then I was drawn in in a different way, because I was contacted by Edward Snowden. I became a participant … and then I had to make choices.

… My proposal to [WikiLeaks] was, “Okay, I want to film you guys working on stories, and then I want to film the ripple effects of those stories globally.” … That’s typically what I do. I don’t go and do interviews and talk about things from the past. I film what’s in front of me.

So, you see the whole process toward [Snowden’s] political asylum — obviously that’s a detail I never knew I was signing up for. [The movie] changed a lot, in a lot of different ways. I didn’t expect to be working on it six or seven years, and making another film [Citizenfour] in the middle of it.

Then also, talking about some of the gender dynamics — that wasn’t my original intention. All those things got a lot messier.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think those changes and unexpected shifts make for better filmmaking in the end?

Laura Poitras

In the end, I just have to make an honest film that expresses what I feel like I need to say. I don’t judge it in terms of good. I’m not jumping up for joy when the CIA director issues horrible threats. I do have to include it in the film, and I think it’s really scary. I think it’s just, how to stay true to the material, and true to what I need to express.

Julian Assange and Sarah Harrison in RiskPraxis Films / Showtime
Julian Assange and Sarah Harrison in Risk.

Alissa Wilkinson

You refer to Assange as a publisher and WikiLeaks as a journalism organization, which I think some people would find provocative. What do you mean when you say the word “journalist”?

Laura Poitras

I want to unpack it a little bit. Why is that provocative?

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of people think of journalists as people who go to places, report stories, and then bring them back and talk about them on TV or whatever. People’s perceptions of what Assange does, and what WikiLeaks does, is sometimes more like a throughput for dropping sensitive documents. For me, your remarks cast a different light on what journalism is.

Laura Poitras

I personally think there’s no doubt that WikiLeaks is engaged in journalism, and that they’re publishers of information that is of public interest. I do have some differences of agreement [with WikiLeaks] around what to publish — for instance, individual names. I don’t agree with that, but do I think the DNC emails were newsworthy? Absolutely. And I think you would be a fool and not a journalist to not recognize that. And I feel the same about the Podesta emails.

We can have differences of opinion, but I think it’s still journalism. And I think there are people who’d say that I’ve published too aggressively, and some people would say I’ve been too conservative in terms of what I’ve published around the NSA material. [Note: Poitras is one of the few people who has the entire archive of NSA documents leaked by Snowden, and has selectively used parts of it in her work.] But it’s all journalism.

I think it’s kind of indisputable that WikiLeaks is a publisher. Is it a publisher that angers people? Sure. Is it a publisher that challenges the status quo? Yes. Is it a publisher that angers governments all over the world? Yes. But I still think they’re engaged in journalism, and in publishing.

Alissa Wilkinson

So many people feel confused right now about what media is, what journalism is, and what it is supposed to do. That’s why, watching the film and hearing people’s reactions to it, I thought you probably get a lot of blowback from people who want to fit your films into their particular framework of understanding. Does that happen a lot?

Laura Poitras

Yeah. I mean, when you release a film, it’s always in dialogue with a particular moment, and its dialogue is going to change, given shifts in politics. This is a pretty extreme moment of that. There are open nerves in this country.

I am trying to release a film that’s complex and nuanced, and I get the sense that there are people who want me to take sides. I’m just like, “But that’s not my job.” My job is to do something that’s complex and in depth.

We’re just releasing [Risk], so I’m just realizing the landscape. But I’m against trying to make something work that is either trying to simplify or speak to the converted. I like it when people from different ideological perspectives can get something out of my films.

Alissa Wilkinson

This was especially striking because Risk starts with Assange calling the State Department and asking to talk to Hillary Clinton, which is almost a moment of humor. Was that in the original cut?

Laura Poitras

Yeah. I was just interested in that moment — that phone call — because it’s the protagonist and the antagonist, this dialogue between WikiLeaks and the US government. There’s just something about WikiLeaks, this relatively small group of people who have had such a global impact. Some people would say for better, some people would say for worse. That phone call captures it.

Alissa Wilkinson

I could feel a shift in the story as it went on; Assange, in particular, seems like he’s going from soft-spoken to more paranoid, and more cocky. There’s a point where the film jumps [in] time and his hair has grown a little bit, and he’s not a different person, but certainly a new iteration of this person. Did you notice those kinds of shifts happening over your time filming him?

Laura Poitras

Yeah. In terms of the narrative perspective, I structured Risk in acts. During the part where he’s walking in the woods, it’s like a feeling of his avenues closing down. He was going to have to make some choices about what to do.

And then he ultimately seeks political asylum [from Ecuador]. I didn’t know what his plan was. I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that’s because, rightly, he needed to be careful about who knew what. Hopefully the film shows that evolution.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in RiskPraxis Films / Courtesy of Showtime
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Risk.

Alissa Wilkinson

You pulled a character arc out of him, which is interesting because he doesn’t seem very transparent. That makes me wonder: There’s a lot of voiceover from your own production journals, some of which is very self-revelatory. Was this in the original cut?

Laura Poitras

No, it came in the reworking. I began the film from more of an observer perspective. Then I became more a participant.

I knew this was a film that was going to have a lot that felt contradictory — aspects that people will like, and then aspects that people will find troubling. Which is kind of normal human stuff, right? We navigate that every day.

But in films, I think there’s this reductive tendency. I wanted it to be complex. So the production journals were a way to bring forward how I was processing things while I was shooting, but then also to give the audience a way in — to say, okay, contradictory things are going to exist in this film.

This is not a film that I’m trying to take anyone down [with]. I’m trying to be honest with it.

Alissa Wilkinson

It felt as if you might have regained control of this story by bringing yourself in as a kind of narratorial voice.

Laura Poitras

I do observational filming, which I love, and I love the fact that it lets the audience navigate for themselves who people are. People are going to have different opinions. I think that’s great, because it’s just how life works. I don’t necessarily want to impose my thoughts on all of that.

When I went back to the film, I needed to deal with my participation in this history more directly. But it felt like more of an obligation, maybe, to the audience. I’m not sure it’s about gaining control; it was more about saying, “Okay, I can’t pretend that I’m not a participant in all these events.”

It’s similar to Citizenfour, when I brought my voice into it. It’s not easy for me. It’s not my default position. My default position is to say, “I’m just here observing.”

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think of films like this, then, as journalism? Maybe bringing yourself into it might be like the New Journalism of the ’60s.

Laura Poitras

It’s journalism and storytelling. I mean, it’s obviously from a perspective. I’m not a journalist in my work or in my life. If you ask me what I think about something, I’m going to say what I think. Would I protest on the streets? I mean, of course I would. I’m not a journalist who feels that they can’t express their opinion. But there’s a whole tradition of journalism written from a first person perspective. So I guess it’s part of that tradition.

I mean, documentary filmmaking is absolutely journalism, but it’s also cinema. For instance, I made a film called The Oath, about bin Laden’s bodyguard. There are scenes in the film where he lies. The film reveals that he’s lying, which isn’t kind of what you do in journalism. In journalism, you’re like, “We can’t say that, because he’s lying.” So they move on to the next fact. But the fact that somebody can’t pin them down, that’s really interesting on a human level. To me, that is really valuable.

There are maybe different kinds of criteria that would count as hard news versus documentary, and insight into universal things. So I’m interested in not just doing the hard facts, you know? It was the same with Citizenfour — as much a character portrait as it is news.

Alissa Wilkinson

What do you think filmmaking, as a form, has to offer as far as truth or honesty that conventional news doesn’t?

Laura Poitras

I think documentary film can reach people in totally different ways than words can. I’m co-creator of this project called Field of Vision, commissioning short films based on that premise. Images can teach us about the world in different ways.

An example of that is one of the films we worked on, Best of Luck With the Wall, which is about Trump’s plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. It’s just a hilarious romp across the United States, saying, “Good luck with that,” because this is a winding border; you’re never going to build a wall. In six minutes, the director made something that was beautiful, funny, political, and upended the absurdity of this policy. I’m really interested in how images can inform the public in different kinds of ways.

Alissa Wilkinson

I watched the Field of Vision short called Our New President, and I loved it.

Laura Poitras

It’s so funny, right? But it’s also really disturbing, and very revealing, I think. Like, how would a bit of journalism like that pass a fact check? But it’s totally news. Because it’s understanding what propaganda looks like from the other side.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think the short form has potential that feature-length filmmaking doesn’t?

Laura Poitras

I love both. We call [Field of Vision] filmmaker-driven, because we were trying to do something that maybe filmmakers need and want: to respond to things quickly. Things happen, and if you’re like, “Okay, I really want to say something about what’s happening now” — with longform, there’s going to be a time lag. It’s not going to be current.

Look at any major news story, and you know there’s going to be a documentary that’s going to tackle it. But how can we shorten the gap between events and when we can publish? So that’s what I’m really interested in — closing that gap.

Short form also allows filmmakers to just be in a creative zone. Filmmaking is about expression. I’m interested in addressing things that are happening around me. Doing that every two or three years, or six or seven — it’s a long time.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are great things about the cinematic form, but do you find that film has limitations in terms of telling newsworthy stories? How do you balance the demands of journalism and cinematic form?

Laura Poitras

I think there are some stories that we get pitched at Field of Vision, and we’re like, “Oh yeah, this is a great story — but it’s a print story.”

Alissa Wilkinson

How do you know?

Laura Poitras

If there’s not access, for instance. There are times where something important is happening, but if we can’t find the right filmmaker and access, we’re not going to do it. We’re not trying to chase the news; we’re trying to capture something that is unique, and we don’t always have the right filmmaker for it. In that case, we would pass, because we’re not aspiring to cover every news story.

But when we have the right combination of cinematic approach or access, we’re really interested in that. We just published this film called The Moderators about India, with incredible access to people who are basically having to look at objectionable content on the internet to see if it will make it onto social media sites. So that’s their job. … We know there are moderators for the internet, but the filmmaker had access to actually watch them in real time.

Alissa Wilkinson

That kind of access necessarily complicates the story, right? Compared to what you might see on the evening news, for instance.

Laura Poitras

I think it gives you a different type of insight that I certainly believe is important.

Julian Assange in RiskPraxis Films / Showtime
Julian Assange in Risk.

Alissa Wilkinson

At the end of Risk, Assange voices his opinion that if you want to really make a difference in the world, it’s no good to just act locally, but “globally.” Thinking about Field of Vision reminds me that the short films you publish are intensely local, but they also have global appeal. How do you navigate that? You must think about whether a local story will be of broader interest, and vice versa, when you’re thinking about which films to greenlight.

Laura Poitras

We have a lot of debates. [Field of Vision co-founder] Charlotte Cook is from the UK, and sometimes when there’s something that just feels so specific to the US context, she’ll raise that question. I don’t think it’s a question just for Field of Vision — I think it’s for all documentary filmmakers.

But I think particular can be universal. What is it about this that’s going to resonate universally on some level, and not just feel like a local story? It’s really case by case.

Alissa Wilkinson

In your own filmmaking, how do you figure out what about a story will resonate more broadly?

Laura Poitras

I usually go in with a big theme that I’m interested in, then look for individuals who are in the nexus of that. With this film, it started with a number of different themes — one being journalism. What WikiLeaks was doing was changing the landscape, and I was interested in that. There was the issue of surveillance, too — those were the two main issues.

I’m interested in those big ideas. But then, also, who are the individuals who are really grappling with those in a more real-time context? Things usually go in a direction I don’t really expect.

I do believe in particular stories being ways to not just understand individuals, but to understand larger political context. And I think, for instance, Julian is somebody who understood the power of the internet, and how it was going to radically transform global politics, and saw things before a lot of people saw them. I think that remains true.

Alissa Wilkinson

So WikiLeaks’ goal is to see transparency throughout government and organizations that are being secretive about things. Do you think that’s actually something that can be achieved? Is it a losing battle, or is it something to keep doing even if it is a losing battle?

Laura Poitras

I think it’s the last, right?

I know everything feels a bit like losing battle, but what are you going to do? I mean, I’m horrified by the current administration, and that this man is the president. But what do I do — stop working?

Risk opened in theaters on May 5, 2017, and will air on Showtime this summer.

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By | 2017-05-19T14:20:00+00:00 May 19th, 2017|Vox|

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