April 22, 2022

Film

‘Ithaka’: A father’s fight

By Anthony Frajman
Image of John Shipton in Ithaka. Image supplied

John Shipton in Ithaka. Image supplied

Ben Lawrence’s documentary probes the family battle to save Julian Assange

Prior to 2020, the Australian filmmaker Ben Lawrence (Ghosthunter, Hearts and Bones) had never contemplated making a film about Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who “disrupted journalism”.

But when Lawrence was approached in August 2020 by Assange’s half-brother, Gabriel Shipton, to make a film about their father, 76-year-old John Shipton, and his battle to save his son, the director didn’t have to think twice – he had to do it.

“When Gabriel rang me, I was [immediately] interested, and to make a documentary with that sort of access is a real gift,” Lawrence says.

The filmmaker, who had followed the Wikileaks saga since it began, saw an opportunity to approach the story of Assange through the perspective of the family that loved and supported him – and their campaign to save him.

“Talking to Gabriel, this idea of making it about Julian and Gabriel’s father, I thought, was a fantastic way to tell the WikiLeaks Julian Assange story.”

After speaking with Gabriel, who also produced the film, Lawrence flew to London on short notice to join John Shipton, just as the United Kingdom was battling the first wave of COVID-19. Assange’s extradition fight was to begin in late 2020.

“The idea was to follow his father within the lead-up to the extradition hearing, which was happening within six weeks. And within a month I was on the plane to London, and two weeks later the hearing started.”

These events form the basis of Lawrence’s latest documentary Ithaka, which follows Shipton, a retired construction worker, on his tireless campaign to save his son, who faces extradition to the United States to face espionage charges carrying a maximum sentence of 175 years.

The filmmaker had made documentaries with challenging subjects before, but Lawrence says the filming of Ithaka put him in an incredibly delicate situation: he was living in close quarters with Shipton, who was going through the daily turmoil of seeing Assange deteriorating in prison while court proceedings were happening.

“I was living with John, we were sharing a place, and that’s where those kitchen interviews really started. In the mornings or the evenings, we’d set up a camera. Our cinematographer was living there as well.”

To add to the complex nature of the project, Assange’s then fiancée (now wife) Stella Moris had only recently revealed herself publicly as his partner. Moris, a human-rights lawyer, was also on Assange’s legal team and was reticent to take part in the documentary due to the ongoing extradition hearing. Her brother, Adrian Devant, was also a producer on the film.

“Stella had only recently, a few months prior actually, come out in public as Julian’s partner,” Lawrence explains. “No one knew who she was or that he had a partner, that he had children.”

Lawrence had encountered a similar situation while working on his previous documentary, Ghosthunter, about a western Sydney security guard. Like Ithaka, it was filmed during an ongoing court trial, thereby limiting what his subjects could say on camera.

But that experience was far less dramatic than the political minefield that Lawrence had entered with Ithaka, and the stakes involved in Assange’s case were much higher.

“Spending time with [Assange’s] family, when we were driving to court each day, we’d all get in the taxi and it’s silence. It’s like going somewhere where you have a family member who’s not well, who’s facing some form of death sentence, who they don’t know what they can do for him. The stakes are high and the stakes for Julian are that he could lose his life over this.”

Another hurdle that Lawrence faced was that Moris was being surveilled, making her participation even more difficult.

“[Stella and Julian] had a lot of caution around who they talk to because of their situation: they were being surveilled by the CIA. So, me stepping into that, I just had to be very gentle and very careful about what was said, how we said it, what we filmed, always checking in with them. It was just very slowly earning trust.”

Lawrence says that, gradually, Moris began to trust him and was willing to participate more fully. This trust is reflected in the film’s use of video calls Moris made to Assange – it’s the first time Assange has been seen on film since 2019.

“Over time, we were able to film a lot more freely, and that’s demonstrated by those sequences when you see Stella at her parents’ home in Barcelona. It’s some of the most intimate footage that you see; you start to see Julian on the phone and hear him.”

One of the biggest challenges for Lawrence was balancing the story of a father’s gruelling fight for his son with the far-reaching issues at stake.

“The film sits somewhere between a think-piece and an emotional odyssey of a father trying to help his son. That balance was really challenging. There’s so many global issues at stake that Julian is at the centre of.”

Lawrence says he was initially wary of the subjectivity of the family’s point of view. Yet, instead of shying away from this, Lawrence decided to suffuse the film with the family’s perspective.

“It really was a family film. And as much as that creates subjectivity, I think I really leant into that and the film was built from the premise of love – and the film shows that. The film is an attempt is to try and show someone through the people who love them, and the people trying to prosecute them.”

Lawrence says he hopes the film will provide encouragement for Assange’s supporters and illuminate the global issues at stake: press freedoms, transparency, freedom of information.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up support for Julian all around the world. There’s dozens of vigils still in Europe and North America, and even in Sydney here there’s been a weekly vigil for almost a decade now, every Friday. I think it’s those supporters who need rallying points all the time.”

He adds, “The aim of this film is to give people who follow the story an opportunity to enter it in a different way, so hopefully you walk away and look at the story more deeply.”

But time is running out for Assange in his attempts to avoid extradition to the United States.

“He’s not in a good way,” Lawrence notes. “It’s already been assessed by doctors that he’s suicidal. This fight has had a dire impact on his mental and physical health, and may cost him his life. The future for him is pretty bleak.”

“It’s now sitting with the UK home secretary, she will determine whether or not Julian is extradited. So, at the whim of a politician, he could be taken to America very quickly. So, it is coming down to the pointy end in terms of his time in the UK.”

Anthony Frajman

Anthony Frajman is a culture writer originally from Melbourne.

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