Risk, Poitras’s film on Assange, six years in the making, is finally finished. During this time she has gone from being an Assange supporter given privileged access to an outsider banished from the WikiLeaks inner sanctum; she has exposed the National Security Agency’s global spying programme (a lot of it published in Britain by the Guardian) after being the first journalist to make contact with whistleblower Edward Snowden, and she has made an Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden called Citizenfour.
Her Snowden film is gripping – a complex, real-life seat-of-the pants thriller. The Assange film, Risk, is very different. At times, it could be a black comedy – part The Office, part Brass Eye.
Yet it was never meant to be like this. Poitras initially contacted Assange because she believed the work he was doing (again, a lot of it published in Britain by the Guardian) was so important.
“I thought WikiLeaks was doing the hard journalism that hadn’t been done for a long time post 9/11. The mainstream media had abdicated responsibility to ask hard questions of what was going on in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was crucial and brave journalism. I was also interested in the global impact it was having. So I was very optimistic about the project.” She pauses. “And I remain optimistic about many things about the work they do and its necessity.” Another caveat.
WikiLeaks seemed to be reinventing journalism when it launched in 2006 as an online platform allowing sources to leak classified information anonymously. In 2007, the not-for-profit organisation discovered that some prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay were denied access to the Red Cross. In 2010, it received more than 700,000 US military and state department documents and released the Collateral Murder tape showing a US Army Apache helicopter crew killing 15 civilians (including two Reuters journalists) – as the crew laughed at the “dead bastards” saying “light ’em up!” Last year, WikiLeaks exposed the Democratic party leadership’s bias against Bernie Sanders and for Hillary Clinton. And on it goes.
Assange, born in Australia and a computer programmer by profession, is the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. In 2011, to all intents and purposes he was WikiLeaks – the crown prince of transparency. Poitras says it took time for Assange to agree to access. At one point in the film, she says: “It’s a mystery why he trusts me because I don’t think he likes me.”
Poitras, by contrast, was born in Massachusetts to wealthy parents (in 2007, they donated $20m [£15m] to found the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research). As a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a chef and worked as a cook in a French restaurant in Boston. She then became fascinated with film, which she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and, in 1992, moved to New York to pursue film-making. In 2006, her film My Country, My Country, a documentary about life for Iraqis under US occupation, was nominated for an Academy award. Her 2010 film The Oath is about two Yemeni men caught up in America’s war on terror.
Assange was aware of both films. It is clear he believed Poitras would faithfully document the hero behind the groundbreaking work. Which she has done. And some. So we see portrayed a man of principle desperate to expose the secret institutions that shape how we live. But we also see a pompous Assange demanding to speak to Hillary Clinton and telling the US Department of State that he is only calling as an act of altruism (“To try and make it clear, we don’t have a problem, you have a problem”); a comically deluded Assange, who believes dyeing his hair ginger and putting on a floppy hat and pair of shades was the perfect disguise, and a narcissistic dictator having his hair cut by two members of staff.
We also meet the paranoid Assange who, according to Poitras, runs the organisation like an intelligence agency using “denial and deception”; and the contemptuous Assange, who tells his colleague Sarah Harrison to imagine the press are “a piece of shit on your shoe”. Then there is the messianic Assange with the self-confessed “God complex”, who tells Lady Gaga, “Let’s not pretend I’m a normal person,” and ticks her off for asking how he feels. (“It’s irrelevant how I feel … because the cause is so much bigger.”) Not forgetting Assange the wannabe celeb, who readily acquiesces to Gaga’s request for him to wear a T-shirt instead of his shirt, so he looks different for her fans.
Poitras knew Assange could be difficult – when she started filming he had already fallen out with the Guardian – but the level of difficulty surprised her. In 2010, an arrest warrant was issued in Sweden, where WikiLeaks is based, in relation to sexual assault allegations against two women. Things became more difficult in 2012, when the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden and he sought sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy.
In one astonishing scene, Assange talks to Helena Kennedy QC, who is advising him on how to deal with the allegations. Assange says, as if to excuse himself, that it is a “radical feminist conspiracy” and dismisses the complainants as lesbians. Kennedy tells him it is not helpful to talk like this. “No, not publicly,” he says, while being filmed. Her look of despair is priceless. Assange then explains why it is not in the best interests of the women to press charges. “An actual court case is going to be very hard for these women … they will be reviled for ever by a large segment of the world population. I don’t think it’s in their interest to proceed that way.’’
It is this scene that led to Poitras and Assange’s falling out. She promised him she would show him the film when it was ready. And shortly before an early version of Risk premiered at Cannes, he did see it – and blew a gasket. “His lawyers demanded we took this scene out, and another one where he talks about the investigation and the women involved. We didn’t, and then he sent a text saying the film is a threat to his freedom and he is forced to treat it accordingly.” What right did he have to make that demand? “He had no right. He had no editorial control over the film.”
Did it surprise her when he tried to censor Risk? “Yes it absolutely did, considering what WikiLeaks stands for. I was surprised on the ideological level – not only did he demand that things were removed, but more recently he sent ‘cease and desist’ letters to my distributors demanding that they stop releasing the film. He was really angry and he tried to intimidate.”
Would she have had more respect for Assange if he had returned to Sweden to be interviewed by the police? She exhales loudly. “I don’t know. I do think his fear of US indictment is not paranoia. The investigation is massive, and he has very good reason to be concerned about being extradited to the US.”
Poitras’s relationship with WikiLeaks was further complicated when it emerged in 2016 that Jacob Applebaum, one of Assange’s closest WikiLeaks confidantes, has also been accused of sexual abuse. Poitras discloses that she and Applebaum had “been involved briefly in 2014”. She then realised she was making a very different film from the one she started out making. “It does take on a question about gender and sexism. When there is another person in the film who has been accused of abuse of power and sexual misconduct, how could I not address it?
The longer she filmed Assange and WikiLeaks, the more critical she became – of their failure to redact names from documents putting people at risk, the tone of the WikiLeaks Twitter feed, attitudes to women, and the motive for some releases. While Poitras is no fan of Hillary Clinton, she does question the timing of the Podesta emails (John Podesta was chairman of Clinton’s election campaign), thought to have been hacked by the Russians and published by WikiLeaks in October/November 2016 just before the election. Clinton partially blamed her defeat on WikiLeaks.
I ask Poitras if she enjoyed making Risk. She laughs, which feels like an answer in itself. “Did I enjoy it? No, I can’t say I did. Filming is always hard, and this was particularly hard. I knew Julian was going to be furious with the film, and I don’t have any joy with that. I know he’s polarising, but there is no doubt he’s a really significant historical figure in the work that he has done, which has transformed journalism, and I think he understood ahead of many people how the internet was going to change global politics.”
While she is critical of Assange, Poitras is also scathing of the media – indeed, the film is partly a critique of the pack mentality of the press. She also believes the Guardian and the Washington Post took too much credit for the Snowden story and literally tried to push her out of the limelight. “In New York, when they gave the Pulitzer prize to the Guardian and the Washington Post, neither organisation invited me on to the stage. That pissed me off. That was really bad behaviour. On the other hand, the story needed institutions behind it.”
It is hard to watch Risk and not compare it with Citizenfour. In fact, for a long time Poitras thought they were going to be one and the same film. Assange and Snowden seem such different men, I say. “I don’t feel it’s my job to judge and compare them – but, yes, they have different motivations. Certainly, my feelings that come through in the film are much more conflicted.” Is there a moral purity to what Snowden did? “People would ask me when I was releasing the film: Is he a hero? People are defined by their actions, and he did something deeply heroic. And I think it was selfless. He knew the consequences could be the end of his freedom or the end of his life.”
She says the whistleblower Chelsea Manning would be a more suitable person to compare Snowden with. What is the most annoying thing about Snowden? “He can lecture. He can get a little bit talky, if you watch some of his public appearances, but that’s not something that pissed me off.”
Her life has changed considerably since making Citizenfour. At times, she has felt scared for her own safety. “Right after the Snowden stuff, I knew I was being followed by intelligence agencies. I felt really nervous about threats from the government, private contractors, intelligence agencies all over the world. There are a lot of bad actors out there. But I have to keep doing the work.”
She says she’s exhausted and could do with a break, but she’s hooked on film-making: surveillance and the intelligence services in particular. What would she like to do next? “I’d love to look at what’s happening in the investigation into Trump. I don’t think I am going to get that access!” she laughs. “I don’t think Comey would take my phone call, unfortunately. He’d be top of the list of people I’d love to film at the moment.”
But for now, she is focusing on the release of Risk. After Assange complained about the film, Poitras took it away, spent a year re-editing it – and returned with a film that was tougher on him. Was that her response to his intimidation; a form of revenge? Again, she exhales loudly and pauses. “I don’t make vengeful films, but I do have to make films that are honest.”
Does she think that Assange was right to trust her? “I think that’s a question for Julian.” I tell her I think it’s a fine film, and her response surprises me. She sounds upset – almost heartbroken. “I don’t want to have fallings out with people that I have respect for,” she says. “For me it’s a tragedy.”
Author: Simon Hattenstone