Risk: The continuing adventures of Julian Assange

By Liam Lacey

Risk, Laura Poitras's new film about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, is more like a Cubist montage of shifting perspectives than a conventional portrait.

Granted extraordinary access, and a relationship with her subject that changed over several years, Poitras’ film serves to deepen already  mixed impressions of the Wikileaks co-founder.

Fans of the journalist and filmmaker’s previous Oscar-winning Citizenfour should probably be advised to adjust their expectations. Citizenfour was a sleek, hair-raising thriller that allowed the viewer to experience, first-hand, history being made, as National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden hid in a Hong Kong hotel in the summer of 2013.  

Risk is unresolved and thus less satisfying, about a subject with more abstract motives over a longer period of time. The film has been revised considerably since it was first released last May at Cannes. It was updated to include the WikiLeaks release of emails from the Democratic National Committee shortly before the 2016 U.S. elections - a move that caused many on the political left to turn against the organization they had previously championed.



When Poitras began filming in 2010, Assange was under house arrest in the Norfolk countryside. In the opening scene, the so-called Cable-gate leak (hundreds of thousands of confidential military and diplomatic cables dumped on to the Internet) has just taken place, not by WikiLeaks but another party. Assange and WikiLeaks are trying to get American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the phone to warn her. He can’t get Clinton, so he brashly tells a State Department subordinate: “We don’t have a problem. You have a problem.”

Actually, Assange would have some problems too. A year later, we follow him, disguised with dyed hair and contact lenses, as he finds asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy. He’s there to avoid extradition to Sweden for interrogation about accuasations that he had sexually assaulted two women.

While Poitras mostly favours the wait-and-see cinema verité mode, Risk, also becomes a diary film about the making of a film. Poitras reveals her evolving perspective on Assange through voice-over quotes from her production journal: “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They’re becoming the story.” Or, “I don’t think he likes me.”

Clearly she admires Assange for supporting whistleblowers like Snowden and Chelsea Manning (who will be released from jail this month.)  We also see a stirring scene with another star of the hacktivist world, WikiLeaks spokesman, Jacob Applebaum. He’s on a panel in Cairo, openly challenging the cable providers who shut down Twitter during the Arab Spring (and later claimed credit for helping bring down Hosni Mubarek’s regime).

But the personal story, which is about gender-politics, takes the film in a different direction.  During the filming, WikiLeaks spokesman Applebaum also faces accusations of sexual abuse from several women. Poitras reveals, again in voice-over, that she was briefly involved with him romantically, and also that he harmed a friend of hers. 

Is misogyny a systemic problem in the WikiLeaks culture? Poitras leaves hints rather than conclusions. In one scene with Helena Kennedy (lawyer, broadcaster and Labour member of the House of Lords), she suggests he choose his words carefully on the subject of the sexual assault allegations.  Instead, oblivious, Assange responds that he has been the victim of a “radical feminist conspiracy.”  (Wouldn’t a CIA plot sound more plausible?) Later, when Sarah Harrison expresses nervousness prior to a press conference, Assange says patronizingly, to “do the feminine thing”.  

   The gender issue lends a different perspective to WikiLeaks latest controversial coup, that of the release of hacked private emails from the Democratic Party Committee. While WikiLeaks' goal seems to have been exposing how the Democratic Party leadership conspired against Bernie Saunders, the results ultimately benefitted another misogynist, Donald Trump.

In Risk’s one extended direct-to-camera interview, Assange, is in front of a table filled with empty beer bottles. He says he has no interest in martyrdom but he sees a greater “risk” in wasting his life by not acting against injustice than in putting himself in his enemies’ sites. Poitras, true to her observational code, never challenges him on the question of unintended consequences or tries to bring him down to earth.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga

To some degree, that role falls to an unexpected guest at the Ecuadorian embassy, pop star Lady Gaga, who showed up to do her own interview with Assange on Oct. 2012. She showed up at the Ecuadorian embassy, dressed as a Halloween witch, holding a compact video camera and firing questions at Assange. At Gaga’s request, he agrees to put on a dirty white T-shirt, in her words, to look “like a rebel.”

The scene serves almost as a parody of traditional celebrity journalism - though Gaga’s interview gets the most obviously truthful statement that Assange gives in the film: “Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person.”

Risk. Directed by Laura Poitras, with Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum, opens Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and is also available on iTunes.

Liam Lacey

is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather.