Filmed over six years, Risk (2016) is a character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story, director Laura Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle.Written by
Real Art Ways
Right after the film was released, WikiLeaks' lawyers published an op-ed saying the film put WikiLeaks in danger, and tried to pressure the film's distributors not to release the film. In response, the film's producers wrote an op-ed saying WikiLeaks was attempting to censor the film. Director Laura Poitras and producers Brenda Coughlin and Yoni Golijov published an 'opinion piece' in Newsweek on June 16, 2017. We are the producers of Risk , a documentary film about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. We unequivocally defend WikiLeaks' journalistic right to publish true and newsworthy information. The Trump administration's threats against WikiLeaks and attacks on press freedom are chilling. As Margaret Sullivan recently argued in the Washington Post, prosecuting WikiLeaks under the Espionage Act would set a dangerous precedent for all journalists. We were disturbed, however, to learn that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks sent cease and desist letters to our distributors demanding they stop the release of Risk: "We therefore demand that you immediately cease the use and distribution of all images of the Named Participants and that you desist from this or any other infringement of the rights of the Named Participants in the future." In WikiLeaks' efforts to prevent the distribution of Risk , they are using the very tactics often used against them - legal threats, false security claims, underhanded personal attacks, misdirection - and with the same intentions: to suppress information and silence speech. Since 2016, Assange and his lawyers have repeatedly demanded that we remove scenes from the film in which Assange speaks about the two women who made sexual assault allegations against him in 2010 and Sweden's investigation which has since been discontinued. In response to our refusal to remove these scenes, Assange and his lawyers are now claiming that Risk threatens the safety of the staff who consented to being filmed, and furthermore, that we are being sexist by including Assange's own comments about women in the film. These arguments are not only false, they are a deliberate effort at misdirection. Risk was filmed over the course of many years, beginning in 2011. Assange and WikiLeaks freely consented to participating in the film, knowing we were making an independent documentary. Neither WikiLeaks nor Assange have any editorial control of Risk. There were individuals who requested from the beginning not to appear in the film, and those requests were respected. Wikileaks and their lawyers were shown the film before each public screening, most recently inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London on April 1, 2017. Each time, we invited their responses. WikiLeaks' comments have consistently been about image management, including: demands to remove scenes from the film where Assange discusses sexual assault allegations against him; requests to remove images of alcohol bottles in the embassy because Ecuador is a Catholic country and it looks bad; requests to include mentions of WikiLeaks in the 2016 U.S. presidential debates; and, requests to add more scenes with attorney Amal Clooney because she makes WikiLeaks look good. It is only after we declined to make the changes they tried to impose that WikiLeaks raised objections to Risk . Their attempts to censor the content of the film are an effort to prevent reporting on Assange's own words. They also constitute a saddening break with WikiLeaks' own ideals. Last month, WikiLeaks' lawyers published an op-ed saying they object to our editing in the United States. However, Assange has known since 2015 that we were editing in the U.S. In 2016, he signed an agreement to license WikiLeaks' own footage to us and raised no objection to mailing a hard drive with footage directly to our editing room in New York City. WikiLeaks has also repeatedly publicized their participation in Risk , most recently re-tweeting a link to the film's trailer on April 10, 2017 (a tweet that has since been deleted), without raising any concerns. In their cease and desist letter, lawyers for WikiLeaks and Assange state: "The unauthorized release of the Film has caused our clients to suffer ongoing irreparable harm, and exponentially increasing damages every time a new viewer sees the Film." All the participants in Risk agreed for years to be in the film. We have no obligation to seek WikiLeaks' or Assange's authorization to release the film. In fact, our rights under the First Amendment are protected precisely because we are engaging in independent journalism. Assange himself has criticized the media for seeking permission from public figures before releasing stories. Like WikiLeaks, our journalism has been the target of U.S. government investigation, secret grand jury, and threats by elected officials. We fully understand and empathize with the dangers WikiLeaks is facing, and we stand in solidarity with all journalists and publishers around the world currently under attack. See more »
In Risk, Laura Poitras, who in 2013 got called specifically by Edward Snowden to be there to document the moment he decided to release the information on how the government was mass-collecting data and spying on the US public at large, she puts her attention on Julian Assange. She actually started filming years before, around the time when Assange was first dealing with the fall-out of the rape allegations (still going on to this day, or at least the one that hasn't expired - what's going on with that, we don't know by the film's end, one can assume it's still pending). She originally screened a version at Cannes in 2016, but because of the banana-animal-crackers-WTF train that was the election, and Assange's role in (arguably) affecting a great deal of the outcome for voters concerned about the leaked DNC emails, she had to update it to reflect that outcome.
So this promises to be a rather expansive look at this man and his times, and I suppose in a way it is. There are also some gaps; the movie jumps from when Assange gets into the Ecuadorian embassy in the UK via asylum (where, by the way, he has a personal trainer guy to help him, uh, stay in shape while not able to go outside, yes this is seen) to (briefly) a bit about Snowden and how one of Assange's lawyers got involved, and then it goes right to 2016. I wish we could've seen what happened, if only briefly, in those few years. Was nothing of consequence done by Wikileaks in that time? To an outsider, it might appear so, or at least in the shadow of people like Snowden and Manning perhaps Assange didn't have much to do while in exile... until those DNC emails, of course.
At times this is interesting, but it lacks the narrative focus and suspense of Citizenfour. Then again comparing to other Assange movies, or at least one documentary, I think it's not necessarily that I *must* learn something new about the man, but I still consider We Steal Secrets, the Gibney doc from 2013, to have a more comprehensive *story* about this man (not to mention the focus on Manning, who is almost a footnote here). It gets a little better in the third act, after we're done seeing what Assange was doing in those heady years of 2010 to 2012, once it gets into 2016, but that also feels too short and we don't get enough from Assange to see where his head was at when it came to the release of the DNC emails.
And I get what Poitras is trying to do here, and it's admirable that it's not the same thing as that we might get in a talking-heads Gibney approach; we're seeing process unfold as far as how Assange talks to his lawyers and associates; how he gets his message across to a spokesperson when talking about an info dump on Syrian military matters; how the news-people comment. But at the same time I'm not sure if there is an engaging through-line; with Citizenfour, to go back to that again, if you can get a really strong emotion going through your film (like in that one, total intensity and suspense of the moment), you can get by showing those small moments going on when not much seems to be happening. With Risk, it's... Lady Gaga now is going to do a (somewhat) shallow interview with Assange where she's halfway engaged with him and we get to see Assange with one of his people in the, uh, woods and he's paranoid about other people listening in.
And... yeah, it's a series of things, with a more compelling character, Jacob Applebaum, popping up sometimes as the man behind "Tor" and who, most interestingly, has a relationship off-screen with Poitras that ends with him being sexually abusive to one of her friends(?!) Wow, where's that movie? Come to think of it, will there be a third movie about a hacker? Maybe the real piece of work Applebaum - followed by an Avengers like team up with Assange and Snowden? As far as showing the cult-like world that Julian Assange has created for himself goes, the depiction of that is captivating. But there's not enough *there* there, if you get my meaning. I wanted a little more of *some* sense of a side she was taking, even if she wanted to keep ambiguity.
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