Politics gets personal
Laura Poitras’ ‘Risk’ sidesteps the biggest question about Julian Assange
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When Julian Assange launched a campaign against Alex Gibney’s hostile documentary on WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets (2013), he argued that Laura Poitras – another documentary filmmaker, best known for her fierce criticism of post–September 11 US foreign policy – was making a far better film. Not long after, Poitras found greater fame as one of the two people Edward Snowden turned to when he decided to reveal the depth and range of the National Security Agency’s spying operations inside America and beyond, and then as the director of the Academy Award–winning film about him, Citizenfour (2014). In May 2016, at the Cannes Film Festival, Poitras released an early version of Risk, her film about WikiLeaks and Assange. Apparently, it was broadly sympathetic. Recently, she released the final version. Assange regards this cut as both a personal betrayal and a threat to his freedom. It is not difficult to see why.
Poitras’ Assange is obviously a highly intelligent abstract thinker. In one of the only amusing moments of Risk, a bemused and bored Lady Gaga interviews Assange in his cramped quarters at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. She asks him whether he loves his mother. He does. Does he love his father? As Assange grew up without his natural father he replies that that’s a more abstract question. Lady Gaga misunderstands him. Like father, like son, is her take. Although there are in Risk fragments from an interview where Assange discusses aspects of his theorising on global revolution in the age of the internet, the shape of his thinking is never revealed.
Poitras’ Assange is also undeniably courageous. He tells Poitras that life offers individuals both risks and opportunities. Although in general he doesn’t believe in martyrdom, the risk of inaction is high. We do not live for many days. All is lost if opportunities for action to improve the world are not seized. There is nothing in Risk that causes us to doubt that Assange has lived according to his word. Late in the film Assange and his most important supporter at that time, the young Englishwoman Sarah Harrison, calculate the length of his prison sentence if extradited to the United States. The figure arrived at is 142 years.
Beyond abstract political intelligence and courage, however, there is little about Poitras’ portrait of Assange that is attractive. The Assange we see is paranoid. Poitras shows him talking to one of his legal team in the safety of the forested grounds in Norfolk, bristling with suspicion that, even there, they are being spied upon. Poitras, who knows a great deal about the need for security, tells us that Assange runs WikiLeaks as an intelligence agency and that “he’s teaching me things about secrecy I didn’t realise I needed to know”. Poitras’ Assange is vain. We see his small team of supporters in Norfolk circling him, taking turns to cut his hair. On several occasions, Assange examines his appearance in a mirror closely. We witness his frisson of pleasure before an audience of admirers or when being filmed. Poitras’ Assange is, in addition, a bully. When one of his people, as he calls them, tells him that she agreed to be interviewed by three FBI agents inside a car, he tells her what a fool she is. He is also notably self-important. In the opening scene of Risk, filmed in 2010, Assange has convinced Harrison to ring the US Department of State and ask to speak to Hillary Clinton, to warn of the imminent release of 250,000 un-redacted diplomatic cables. Eventually, he hears back from one of Clinton’s lawyers. Assange lets him know that he is doing the then secretary of state a favour. “We don’t have a problem,” he explains portentously. “You have a problem.”
Apparently it is only in the final version of Risk that Poitras has included an interpretative narration expressing her deepening disillusion with Assange. In this narration Poitras wonders why Assange has allowed her to film so freely when he doesn’t appear to like her. There is in fact no mystery. The kind of intimate access she was given was based on Assange’s assumption about the kind of panegyric she would make. Poitras tells us of nightmares where she has betrayed Assange. In the context of their relations, indeed she has. Poitras explains why her attitude to Assange has changed. “This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They’re becoming the story.”
What then are the contradictions? The disillusion with Assange seems principally to concern his relations with women. The most memorable scene in Risk involves a discussion between Assange and one of his legal advisers, Helena Kennedy. She tells Assange that, in relation to the alleged sexual assault of two women in Sweden, his line has to be that, while he recognises the seriousness of rape, he is not a rapist. She warns that he mustn’t treat the case as some mad feminist conspiracy. In public, Assange agrees to toe this line. In private, however, he informs Kennedy that he regards himself as a victim of “a thoroughly tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing”. In explanation, he points out that one of his accusers started “a lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg”. Kennedy is angry and exasperated. “What’s setting up a lesbian nightclub got to do with the price of fish?” Later, a male supporter who has gone to Sweden to assess the lie of the land is told that everything would be speedily settled if Assange agreed to meet the women. Assange’s response implies that they are simply spurned lovers. Is he being sarcastic? No, is Assange’s reply.
Late in the film we discover that Assange’s most important collaborator, Jacob Appelbaum, with whom we learn Poitras had a brief affair, has been accused of serial sexual misconduct, one of his alleged victims a close friend of Poitras. Revulsion over Appelbaum seems to have compelled Poitras to confront the contradictions in Assange’s character and behaviour – intelligent, courageous and charismatic certainly, but also vainglorious, arrogant and exploitative – that she had previously been struggling not to see.
We also learn that Poitras and Assange fell out badly after the Edward Snowden leaks. Poitras broke contact with Assange for some months following her arrival in Hong Kong to film Snowden. For his part, from his room in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange rather miraculously engineered Snowden’s escape. He despatched Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong; she then accompanied Snowden to Moscow and negotiated his asylum. Assange wanted to publish the Snowden files in Poitras’ possession. “I tell him I can’t be his source,” Poitras says in voice-over. “I don’t tell him that I don’t trust him. He’s still yelling as I hang up the phone.” Assange’s desperation to have the Snowden files and Poitras’ denial of access are the only significant facts revealed in Risk not previously known.
Recently, of course, in the story of WikiLeaks and Assange, something even more important than the Snowden affair has taken place. When Russian intelligence hacked into the Clinton campaign emails and those of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, with the purpose of harming her and helping her rival, the hackers chose WikiLeaks as their avenue for publication in order to maintain plausible deniability. In the weeks before the presidential election, the US media – from Fox News to the New York Times – flooded the country with information that WikiLeaks released drip by drip. Trump himself made use of this material on more than 150 occasions. Without the contribution of WikiLeaks it is possible that Donald Trump would not have been elected as president.
These events are covered in Risk, but superficially, and without any forensic intent or attempt to place what has just occurred in the overall assessment of the work of WikiLeaks and Assange. This seems to me a failure of nerve and an evasion. Assange’s willingness to assist in the election of Trump is the overwhelmingly most disturbing question that all former WikiLeaks supporters such as Poitras (and myself ) must now ponder.
In 2006, Julian Assange established WikiLeaks as a revolutionary political organisation tailored to the new age of electronic communications. According to WikiLeaks’ foundational theory, corrupt state and corporate institutions could be weakened and ultimately destroyed by the fear of whistleblowers, whose identities could be kept secret by use of encryption software. The fears of corrupt institutions would force them to expend energy covering their tracks, what Assange called a “secrecy tax”. Accordingly, only morally and politically fit state and corporate institutions would thrive and survive. What we have learned from recent events, however, is that WikiLeaks was itself vulnerable to a radical form of corruption if the leaks it published came not from upright whistleblowers but from manipulative political actors, such as the agents or intermediaries of an intelligence service. There was quite simply nothing in Assange’s theory that might have dissuaded him from co-operating with Russian intelligence in its clandestine anti-Clinton, pro-Trump operation. A revolutionary movement born of idealism and the hope of creating a better world has thus ended by assisting in the election of the most dangerous president in the history of the United States.
I am writing this review less than a week after Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. The strengths and weaknesses of Julian Assange form the principal subject matter of Risk. However, it is not the real or supposed defects of his character but a fatal flaw in his thinking – in which Laura Poitras shows little interest and appears not to understand – that can best explain Assange’s modest contribution to the current crisis of civilisation that we now face.
Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent book, The Mind of the Islamic State, will be published in the US this month by Prometheus Books.