Academy Award winning-director (“Citzenfour”) Laura Poitras’s complicated new documentary “Risk,” is a seemingly all-access portrait of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the media organization he founded in 2006.
The film, shot over six years, beginning in 2010, premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar and was subsequently re-edited for several months as the world/WikiLeaks situation shifted. “Risk” considers Assange’s work as a defender of freedom of information, his principles (or lack thereof) and pragmatism, and his outsize ego, that shields him from concern about the real-world ramifications of the leaks. Long seen as an ally of the left (WikiLeaks enabled the deeply courageous Chelsea Manning to leak Iraqi war materials), Assange and his brand suffered a massive body blow when WikiLeaks published the emails gleaned from Russia’s hack of the DNC, during the brutal 2016 presidential election.
While Poitras is ambivalent about Assange (and in voiceover says, “I don’t tell him that I don’t trust him”) and his work, I have an antipathy toward him as another powerful male narcissist with serious problems with women. After last week’s screening, a friend, a well-respected film critic, expressed similar feelings. Assange’s inability to even address the sexual assault allegations leveled by two women in Sweden is the main issue (and he has been holed up in Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly five years to avoid extradition on those charges).
But Assange’s attitude toward and treatment of the women, particular Sarah Harrison, who work with (not for) him are also problematic. An ancient “joke” about SDS (Students for Democratic Society), an organization that dissolved in 1969, applies to WikiLeaks: “men make policy, women make coffee.” Assange treats Harrison like a secretary and chauffeur. She calls the U.S. State Department to get Clinton on the phone for him, although he’s sitting across the table, doing nothing except telling her what to say. Assange could make his own phone calls. He later asks, “What’s for dinner?” And another woman, outside of the frame, answers, “Lamb chops.”
Yet I’m still a defender of the rights of WikiLeaks, horrified by the latest undemocratic noise from Jeff Sessions and James Comey. Poitras wrote, “The recent threats against WikiLeaks and their staff by the director of the CIA and the Attorney General are chilling. These threats should be interpreted for what they are: an aggressive effort on the part of the Trump administration to silence the free press and attack the First Amendment.”
“Risk” opens today in New York at IFC Center and Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, and nationwide. Laura Poitras will be in conversation with academic and author Kate Crawford at IFC’s 7:25 pm show, and with Jameel Jaffer, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, at the 9:35 pm show.