“Hello, may I speak to Hillary Clinton?”
Julian Assange sits on the other side of a table from the woman on the phone, who is calling a number she has found on the web page of the American consulate in London. This phone call took place six years ago. WikiLeaks is trying to alert the State Department that there has been a security breach concerning a cache of leaked files. The woman is Sarah Harrison, who now lives in Berlin in exile after accompanying Edward Snowden on his 2013 flight from Hong Kong to Moscow. Several women close to Assange seemed to betray him for that other leaker, at least in his mind.
This is the opening scene from RISK, a new documentary from Laura Poitras, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Citizenfour and the first point of contact for Snowden as he sought to go public with his NSA leaks. But this film is about the founder of WikiLeaks, the original celebrity associated with large-scale data breaches. He is Snowden’s precursor, which makes RISK a kind of prequel.
That cache turns out to contain hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables—an unprecedented leak. And if an American had not heard of WikiLeaks before the most recent American election, they have now: Assange released the hacked Democratic National Committee documents that FBI Director James Comey now officially believes were obtained by Russia and passed to WikiLeaks. The organization was recently classified as a hostile non-state intelligence agency by the U.S. government. In other words, it’s a ripe moment for RISK’s release.
Six years ago, WikiLeaks was different. Assange and his associates (in addition to Sarah Harrison, the documentary focuses on the hacker and security expert Jacob Appelbaum) were at the forefront of political activism around cybersecurity, surveillance, and hacking. In 2011, when WikiLeaks made public their entire collection of confidential diplomatic cables, the newspapers Le Monde, El País, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times had already been reporting from WikiLeaks’s data, which provided valuable insights on America’s war on terror, nuclear disarmament, and more.
WikiLeak’s impact on recent history has been immense, but Poitras’s film is an intimate document. It is presented in the first person. Poitras reads from a production journal throughout (“This is not the film I thought I was making”) and subjects refer to her as “Laura” while she films them.
The documentary is rapidly complicated by the allegations of sexual assault made by two women in Sweden against Assange. He talks about women in ways that are unambiguously offensive. Some kind of media coach discourages him from using “language that is hostile to women.” “In public?” he asks. Assange refers to the allegations as a “tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing.” One of the alleged victims “started the lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg,” he says, as if that means anything. The coach is exasperated. Assange suggests that if the women were to apologize to him, he would “apologize for anything I did or didn’t do to hurt their feelings.”
The allegations, combined with Assange’s poor grasp of how to talk about women, have badly damaged his reputation. Meanwhile, he has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he claimed sanctuary to avoid the Swedish charges, which he and his supporters suggest would lead to extradition to the United States and unspeakable punishments.
The scenes Poitras captures in RISK are remarkable. She attends a meeting between Assange and a lawyer that takes place in a field in the countryside. Assange freezes at a sound. “It’s a bird,” the lawyer says. Poitras films Assange’s associates giving him a haircut, laughing and drinking wine. She films him dressing in a disguise, helped by his mother, as he ditches court to sneak into Ecuador’s embassy. In her voiceover, Poitras wonders why Assange gives her this intimate access, since he does not appear to like her. He often stares straight into the camera, his face an illegible combination of smile and wall. Sometimes he blinks often; sometimes he seems not to blink at all.
The gender issues encapsulated by Assange’s Swedish legal case extend further into the world Poitras depicts. In one scene, Jacob Appelbaum leans way too closely over a women in hijab, her face freezing in discomfort as he types on her keyboard. Later, accusations of sexual abuse by a number of women against Appelbaum are reported in RISK. Here, Poitras has to disclose that she herself was briefly involved with him. Then, she says, he abused somebody close to her.
At moments like these, Poitras is in a difficult position, shifting from observer to participant. That participation in turn shapes her methodology as director: This is a film about political actors, and gender politics are politics too, so it is a film about the tensions and failures within a political movement.
At a reception at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, I asked Poitras if she thinks that there’s something wrong with Julian Assange’s personality. She wouldn’t want to medicalize it, she said, but: “He’s a power player, that’s obvious.”
She quoted the documentary: “In the film there’s a scene where he’s talking about the Egyptian revolution. He says, ‘How many people would you be willing to sacrifice for the larger gain?’” That’s a calculation about power, she said. For her, the answer is: “Nobody. I don’t want to sacrifice anyone because I’m not trying to do those kinds of calculations.” Julian Assange, on the other hand, does them all day long.
I asked if she was worried that journalists would only care about this film because WikiLeaks is implicated in aggressive acts by Russia against the United States. “To be honest,” she said, “talking about gender makes me more worried, in terms of trolls and backlash.” She is right to fear the legions of anonymous internet users allied with Assange. She acknowledges that large-scale leaks touch on “a raw nerve in this country around the election.” But she is “trying to represent something that is complex,” the charismatic and damaged man. She is trying to represent things that really happened.
RISK is a messier, weirder, and more interesting documentary than Citizenfour, about a messier, weirder, and more persistently relevant man. Both films feature lingering shots of paper, torn into pieces, burning. After Assange watched RISK, he told Poitras that he viewed it as “a severe threat to my freedom,” and that he would “treat it as such.” He felt betrayed that Poitras did not publish the NSA materials with WikiLeaks; he feels threatened by the footage concerned with the Swedish case.
Maybe it’s just clever camerawork, clever soundtracking on Poitras’s part, but Assange’s voice fills rooms with fear. The totality of his self-belief is as remarkable to see on screen as it is horrifying. And that is where the movie ends: not inside the embassy (where, bizarrely, Lady Gaga pays a visit) and not with Appelbaum on stage harassing Egyptian bureaucrats, but back in a little room in Norfolk, inside Julian Assange’s gaze. He looks into the camera: “Perhaps I have a God complex,” he says, and laughs.