RISK is an infuriating film on many levels. A startlingly intimate portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that spans seven years — during which he goes from house arrest in rural England to claiming asylum at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to releasing a damaging cache of hacked emails at a pivotal point during last year’s presidential election — the film is guaranteed to stir up strong feelings among Assange supporters and sceptics alike.
On another, more meta plane, Risk raises some disquieting questions about the process of documentary film-making itself, as director Laura Poitras places herself squarely in the middle of ethical issues that throw the entire enterprise into question.
Poitras, who won an Oscar in 2015 for Citizenfour, a riveting portrait of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, takes a similarly up-close-and-personal approach to her subject in Risk, which begins in 2010, when Assange is living in Norfolk, England, trying to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning regarding accusations of sexual assault.
As the movie opens, he and WikiLeaks section editor Sarah Harrison are working the phones, trying to warn the US State Department about the impending release of unredacted diplomatic cables. With a combination of naiveté and hubris that will become gratingly familiar over the course of the film, Assange and Harrison try to get then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the phone, with Assange at one point telling a low-level State Department employee that “I don’t have a problem, you have a problem.”
Of course, they get nowhere. But the foreshadowing has been put in place in a narrative that marches towards its election-year climax with almost novelistic inevitability. Like Citizenfour, Risk unfolds in verite-style encounters, while Assange consults with his mostly female team of attorneys, holds spin meetings with the WikiLeaks staff, plots legal and publicity strategies and, at one point, has his hair cut while watching a K-pop video as his adoring minions look on with awed smiles.
What emerges from these sessions isn’t terribly different from the depiction Alex Gibney provided in his jaundiced 2013 WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets. As in that film, Assange is shown here to be a self-dramatising, purposefully enigmatic figure who, regardless of vaunted rhetoric about principles and praxis, often seems compromised by the same moral arrogance and unaccountability he decries in his opponents. At the film’s most surreal moment, by which time Assange has claimed asylum in London, Lady Gaga pays her respects and films an inane interview, peppered with questions about his favourite food and who’s “after” him.
Assange replies with a long list, mostly comprising US government agencies, as well as Swedish authorities, who will probably allow him to be extradited to America should he return to that country. Risk devotes a lot of time to that quandary, capturing Assange at his most misogynistic during a strategy session with one of his attorneys. Poitras, who presented a far more pro-Assange version of the film at Cannes last year, admits at one point that “the lines have become blurred,” adding, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. ... I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.”
Risk is heavy on the psychodrama between the film-maker and her subject — Poitras regularly regales viewers with the dreams she has about Assange — reaching its dramatic climax when Assange decides to release damaging DNC emails last July. As he weighs which candidate is more deserving of being harmed, it’s as if Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator is dandling an inflatable globe on his knee. On the one hand, he observes, Trump might have some unsavoury business dealings in his past. On the other, Clinton clearly “has got it in for me”. And here we are.
These scenes offer chilling evidence of Poitras’ change of heart regarding Assange, who might have started out as an admirable warrior for pure transparency but who evolves in the course of the film into a smug, self-righteous megalomaniac. Even more sobering, though, is Poitras’ disclosure late in the film that she committed a serious boundary violation in the course of filming, an ill-advised relationship that casts serious doubt on her judgement and credibility. Her admission is too little, too late, and raises far more questions than it answers, suggesting that Poitras is either unwilling or unable to contend with the contradictions she so elegantly invoked moments earlier.
Risk raises deep misgivings about its subject and its maker. But it’s still queasily, compulsively watchable — and probably necessary, if only as a cautionary example of how ethics, objectivity and agendas come into play in non-fiction film-making.
One of the chief goals of documentarians is to invest the audience emotionally with otherwise dry subject matter. There’s no denying that Risk achieves that aim, even if the cardinal feelings viewers walk away with are confusion, betrayal and an unshakeable sense of unease. Here we are, indeed.
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2017