Tuesday, July 04, 2017

RISK - unsatisfactory and uncomfortable, much like its subject (QFT until 6 July)

Laura Poitras had already been filming behind the scenes with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange when Edward Snowden’s release of NSA information hit the headlines. She was embedded with the team that helped Snowden evade US authorities and travel to Russia. That part of her footage was extracted into the successful standalone film CitizenFour (reviewed) and released in late 2014.

Filmed over five years, Risk is like prequel and a sequel to that story. However, Snowden is a relatively straightforward, clean cut character who can attract audience empathy in a way that the more complicated Assange cannot.

At first Poitras portrays a principled and pragmatic publisher of government secrets who admits that he may not behave in a “methodical manner” when subjected to threats. Then a layer of the onion is peeled away to reveal a paranoid protester who must have a crick in his neck given the number of times he looks over his shoulder while being briefed by a colleague in a wooded area near the WikiLeaks HQ.

‘Being briefed’ is misleading phrase for me to use: Assange frequently interrupts those who speak to him. It’s one of the traits that jumps out from the 92 minute film. He is unable to suppress his own thoughts escaping his mouth while he is supposed to be listening to someone else.

And then there’s his startling lack of empathy for other people, including the women who made the allegations of sexual assault. He dismisses the complaints and investigation as a radical feminist conspiracy. Suddenly he’s on the wrong side of this conspiracy.

The onion continues its raw reveal as we realise that although WikiLeaks is a small organisation, this is a boss who lets other people dial the numbers and start phone calls before he reaches over to take the handset. His team trim his hair, and even when closeted in his cramped quarters in the Ecuador embassy next door to Harrods in London (June 19 was his fifth anniversary), he is surrounded by WikiLeaks staffers.

One of his most trusted aides, Sarah Harrison, was unable to return to the UK for several years after helping Snowden flee to Russia. Yet we hear no complaint. Loyalty within Camp Assange is high.

One side effect of the extended period of filming is that some of the long-running characters disappear (like a soap opera). Jacob Appelbaum (journalist, hacker and computer security researcher) is at first prominent, speaking at conferences about WikiLeaks and challenging government figures, before making a quick exit from the scene (and his involvement with the Tor Project) when allegations of sexual abuse were made.

The case of Bradley Manning (who transitioned to Chelsea Manning over the course of the documentary’s timeline) is also woven into the general tapestry of discordant digital rebellion along with visits to Washington, Tunis and Egypt. Footage of Lady Gaga interviewing the white-haired crypto-journalist is surreal.

While never, or rarely, appearing on camera herself, Laura Poitras has chosen to narrate the film through a series of production diary extracts. The story she tells is bitty. The chosen end point is no better – and no more conclusive – than if the film had stopped ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

We see the risks that WikiLeaks staff take in their pursuit of publishing the ‘truth’. We see the risks some may have taken outside of their work. We are also introduced to the risk being taken by the filmmaker who has triggered government agency trip wires and is now viewed as a sympathiser if not a direct advocate for WikiLeaks.

At points in the film, Risk feels both unsatisfactory and uncomfortable. As a consequence it successfully reflects the WikiLeaks organisation and its leader Julian Assange.

The film no where near as complete and finished as CitizenFour. And Assange is no where near as likeable a subject as Snowden. But Risk is a good overview of the Assange era, even if his story – and incarceration in the Knightsbridge diplomatic mission – has not reached a neat conclusion.

If WikiLeaks made films about people doing things they didn’t like, Risk contains exactly the moments that they would include to shake the trust the audience would have in their subject. Laura Poitras has certainly done nothing to give Julian Assange hero status, nor has she rescued his reputation. The uncompromising documentary highlights his aloofness and the contradictions in his approach.

Risk is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 6 July.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The version of Risk that Poitras showed at Cannes last year was a good deal more sympathetic to Assange, for which some reviewers even criticised her. What was not known at that point was that she was the lover and co-worker of Jacob Appelbaum, who was also portrayed very prominantly in a favourable way. Then came the (now discredited by three German journalistic investigations) sex allegations against Appelbaum and the subsequent direct threats of total ostracisism to Poitras by the anonymous complainants - "Anyone who publicly supports Jake will be cut out entirely. That includes you Laura Poitras" ...

So Laura caved in and re-cut the film. What I find so deeply unethical is her removal from this new cut of the whole section previously included on Assange's legal victory at the UN over his arbitrary detention by the UK and Sweden over this so-called "sex assault" investigation - now formally discontinued. But, as Poitras says, she had unprecedented access to WikiLeaks inner circle over years so it is 100% certain that she knew the full context for Assange's remarks about "radical feminist conspiracy" by the two women: forensic analysis by the Swedish police National Crime Lab had found that one of them - a prominant feminist politician - had faked the 'torn condom' evidence used to frame Assange for rape and get him extradited from England.

Shameful, utterly shameful, that Poitras kept such information hidden from her audience.