There’s a scene early in Risk, documentarian Laura Poitras’s new film about Julian Assange, in which the WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief is given a lecture about the language he uses to talk about women. One of his colleagues urges him to sound less hostile when making any public statements about the allegations of rape and molestation made against him by two Swedish women. He’s told he needs to acknowledge that claims of sexual assault should be heard and taken seriously while stating that in his particular case, he is innocent.
Assange insists he understands. And then he goes on to speak “privately” about how the whole thing is a “mad feminist conspiracy,” a “thoroughly tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing.” “She started a lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg,” he says of one of his accusers, as if that were somehow proof of her untrustworthiness. The trouble, he goes on, is that there are two accusers running a “tag team” against him, which makes them harder to discredit. If there were one, he says, she could simply be characterized as “a bad woman.”
It’s not just Assange’s misogyny that makes these moments such a shiv to the gut — it’s the deliberation there, the flatly expressed understanding of utilizing how easily narratives are manipulated against women who make charges of rape, their sexual histories and habits leveraged against them. It’s such an ugly moment from the embattled activist that you wonder why he allowed it to be captured on camera, something Poitras herself muses in the film’s voiceover, in which she reads from her production diary. “Sometimes I can’t believe what he lets me film,” she says. “It’s a mystery to me why he trusts me, as I don’t think he likes me.”
Poitras, in turn, spends Risk considering and then reconsidering whether she likes or trusts Assange. She clearly respects what WikiLeaks has stood for; hers is not a film to look to for an in-depth debate on the ethics of publishing classified media, even with the added complexities of last year’s hacked email leaks and whether that data came from a Russian state source (something Assange has denied). Poitras started shooting Risk back in 2010, the year of Cablegate and the Collateral Murder video, of Assange’s heyday of digital-activist rock-stardom. When the film premiered at Cannes in 2016, it reportedly played as more directly on the side of its subject — Variety’s Peter Debruge questioned whether it was “a work of journalism or a glorified fan film.” But then she continued working on the movie, recutting it as late as April to reflect the events of the US presidential election, her ambivalence about her subject, and their deteriorating relationship.
The reworked result is not a fan film at all — it’s sour-stomached with conflict, an engrossing document of both Assange’s public arc and Poitras’s personal one, as she wrestles with her feelings about his work versus who he is as a person — as she puts it, his “contradictions.” It’s hardly a unique dilemma. Women have had to reckon with admired men who mistreat women since the dawn of time. But Poitras’s struggle to emphasize the right of WikiLeaks to exist and publish while depicting Assange’s astronomical self-regard is a particularly wrenching one. After all, Poitras herself is a significant figure in the fight for transparency and accountability in the era of mass surveillance and the war on terror.
It was Poitras who was kept on a watch list for six years without explanation, detained and interrogated whenever she crossed the US border, after making her Oscar-nominated 2006 Iraq War film My Country, My Country. It was Poitras who flew to Hong Kong with journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet with Edward Snowden after having been contacted by the NSA leaker anonymously online. The remarkable result, the nonfiction film as dystopian thriller Citizenfour, went on to win the Oscar in 2015. (In Snowden, the much staider Oliver Stone-directed biopic that followed, Poitras would be played by Melissa Leo.) It was Poitras who achieved what fellow filmmaker Alex Gibney could not with his 2013 We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, in getting allowed access to Assange and the actual operations of WikiLeaks’ staffers and allies.
Consequently, Poitras was able to capture some key moments in Assange’s storied last seven years, with a noticeable gap in the middle. We glimpse Assange in a country house in Norfolk in 2011, coolly telling a US official that it is their problem, not WikiLeaks’, that the password for one of the organization’s “insurance” files has been exposed, and that the 251,287 classified diplomatic cables within are about to hit the internet. And we actually see his escape to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought asylum and where he’s now been holed up for almost five years in order to avoid extradition to Sweden, something he believes would be followed by extradition to and prosecution in the US. A disguise is involved, as is a motorcycle, Assange zipping away like something out of the Bourne Identity after his appeal is dismissed in the UK courts.
There’s a lot of high-stakes drama — and yet at other times, Risk recalls not the spy genre so much as it does “American Bitch,” the biting two-hander episode of the last season of Girls in which Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath meets with Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), a famous novelist she idolized who’s been accused of preying on college-aged women for sex while on book tour, and who wants a chance to defend himself. “Ego, yes. But also brave. He’s managing his image, but also being vulnerable,” Poitras observes in voiceover, aware that she and Assange are engaged in a duel over depiction not dissimilar to the one Hannah gets locked into with Chuck, one in which strategic shows of soft underbelly get offered up in exchange for sympathy.
One of the more telling Assange moments involves, of all people, Lady Gaga, who arrives at the embassy for a visit and to interview the man, declaring his embassy living space like “college” and asks him questions about his favorite food and if he ever feels “like just fucking crying.” It’s a funny sequence, but it’s also telling, the way that Assange rejects Gaga’s attempts at humanizing him — calculatedly taking the opposite tactic of his approach with Poitras, playing another sort of game. “What does it matter how I feel?” he asks the pop star, and it comes across not so much as out of a desire to minimize himself, but to treat global problems as his own, as if he were not also a man with a body and an ego, emotions, and appetites.
Throughout Risk, Assange comes across as dedicated in his commitment to cause, but he also shows a disturbing ability to treat what he believes is best for the world and what’s best for himself as interchangeable. While he describes both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as bad directions for the US to take, he groups Clinton’s opposition to WikiLeaks with his characterization of her as a warmonger before noting that there’s interesting stuff to be dug up on her, unlike the lesser-known element that is Trump. He half-jestingly mentions his “god complex” and holds forth about the importance of acting globally when asked if what he’s up to isn’t also about personal power. There’s even a wince-worthy line in which he jokes about how he should arrange to have a “sex scandal every six months,” since that’s what really put him on the map. In the film’s most striking visual, Poitras catches Assange exiting a courtroom in an overhead shot in which, swarmed by cameras, he resembles a movie star.
It’s claims of sexual mistreatment that seem to have been part of the reason for the shift in Poitras’s film over the past year — not those attached to Assange, but to Jacob Appelbaum, another prominent cyberactivist, representative of WikiLeaks, and the former public face of the Tor Project. Appelbaum’s work is periodically showcased throughout Risk. He valiantly holds Egyptian telecom representatives to account about their acts of censorship during the past regime on a panel on Cairo and travels to Tunisia to provide encryption training. And in June 2016, Appelbaum was accused of sexual and emotional abuse by a collection of people, some who shared their stories anonymously and others who did so under their actual names. They were soon joined by others.
The charges, which Appelbaum has denied, sent shock waves through the community, and while he described them as a “calculated and targeted attack,” he also stepped down from Tor. It’s in detailing the allegations that Poitras discloses that Appelbaum is someone she was briefly romantically involved with, and that he acted abusively toward someone she knew after they separated — a quiet, upsetting revelation. The echoes of Assange and the pattern suggested cannot be ignored, a reminder that no social movement is immune to this kind of toxicity, that power cloaked in idealism can still be misused, and that this dynamic is further enabled by organizational tendencies to downplay anything perceived as potentially harming a cause.
As Risk hurries toward its revamped ending, it solidified into a film not just about Assange’s contradictions, but the contradictions inherent in these prominent men who devote their lives to making the world better while apparently not feeling the same obligations toward individuals around them. Risk’s strongest point is in its insistence that portraying one need not come at the expense of the other, that misogyny and acts of alleged abuse are in no way negated by some grander-scaled pursuit of justice. Otherwise all that focus on the big picture starts to seem like a convenient way to minimize things like assault charges, things that aren’t getting in the way of work that needs to be done, but are an example of just how much more we need to do.