Towards the end of Risk, Laura Poitras’s incisive new documentary on Julian Assange, which premiered today at Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight, there’s a rare lighthearted moment featuring Lady Gaga posing questions to the WikiLeaks founder.
“I’m not a normal person,” insists Assange, who has spent nearly four years in the Ecuadoran embassy in London while evading the British government’s efforts to extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault charges.
Yet as Poitras pointed out at a press conference following the premiere screening, Ms. Gaga’s playful questions actually elicit a serious set of responses from Assange that underline the precariousness of his status as a political prisoner in a diplomatic no-man’s land. He informs the pop diva that a laundry list of governmental agencies in Australia and the United States want him arrested and he’s even fearful that, if extradited to the United States (Assange supporters maintain that the Swedes’ demands are merely a ruse to hand him over to the U.S. government), American courts might demand the death penalty for him under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Divided into 10 chapters that chart Assange’s political activism from the Arab Spring to his ongoing asylum in London, Risk is a companion piece to Citizenfour, Poitras’s Oscar-winning chronicle of how Edward Snowden shocked the international media by surfacing as a whistleblower in a Hong Kong hotel in 2013. Poitras tantalizes us with several glimpses of Assange inserting contact lenses after donning a wig to evade detection, a rather melodramatic demonstration of the half-serious, half-farcical nature of the cloak-and-dagger machinations indulged in by one of the era’s most notable anti-Establishment celebrities. In a pivotal scene, Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame passes the torch to Assange by giving the WikiLeaks spokesman his wholehearted support.
The supporting cast of Risk includes Sarah Harrison, a lawyer for WikiLeaks and an important Assange colleague, and Jacob Appelbaum, a noted hacker and anti-surveillance expert who also figures prominently in Citizenfour. A powerful sequence depicts a confrontation on a panel in Cairo between Appelbaum and TE Data, an Egyptian Internet provider. Appelbaum maintains that TE Data was blocking and in effect censoring Twitter during the Arab Spring in order to lend support to the Mubarak regime. At least in the sequence included in the film, the Internet bureaucrat says nothing to deny Appelbaum’s accusations.
Some early reviews of Risk have groused slightly about the fact that, unlike Citizenfour, Poitras’s new film includes little new material or major “revelations.” Of course, these cavils don’t seem to acknowledge the importance of one semi-bombshell: the foregrounding in one sequence of leaked FBI audio files in which an agent attacks Poitras as dangerously “anti-American.” Unsurprisingly, government agencies believe that whistleblowing, whether performed by anonymous activists or Oscar-winning directors, is little more than a threat to national security.
This motif was driven home by Appelbaum in the press conference inasmuch as he divided journalists into two categories: those scribes who favor access to important information concerning our government’s misdeeds and hacks he labeled “stenographers of the state.” When asked about the fate of Assange and WikiLeaks under either a future Clinton or Trump administration, Appelbaum replied that, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, he was told by one of her underlings that she loathed Assange, as well as WikiLeaks and its agenda. He added that he had no idea what the other potential commander-in-chief might think of Assange. One can only imagine.
Even though previous Assange movies—Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks—bombed at the box office, it seems likely that Poitras’s characteristically you-are-there treatment will garner considerable attention when it’s released in the U.S. While the public may have a limited appetite for movies about the renegade Australian activist, Citizenfour proved that attention must be paid to the work of one of the most skillful documentary filmmakers in our midst.