Laura Poitras’s new documentary, Risk, has all the conspiracy and paranoia you could wish for – much of it behind the camera as well as on screen. The latest film from this Oscar-winning filmmaker, billed as a “personal and intimate” character study of Julian Assange, is arguably more notable for the inside story of its making than it is for any unmasking of the founder of WikiLeaks.
Poitras first unveiled Risk at Cannes in 2016 and critics once again admired – as they had with her Oscar-winning study of Edward Snowden, Citizenfour – her repeated ability to use the camera as a guerrilla weapon in the war against secretive state culture.
Poitras’s “surveillance aesthetic” is clearly marked in the movie. She lets images of rainy streets linger in the mind; a walk in the woods is suddenly filled with tension; Assange and his mother in a hotel room is littered with paranoid thriller references. All these images are accompanied by inter-titles: WikiLeaks’ release of classified documents, watchlists, Poitras’s apartment being broken into and more – that are both menacing in their suggestiveness and opaque at the same time.
But the real significance of Risk is not what’s on screen. To the extent that we know Assange at all, revelations appear to be in short supply and little is new or shocking. What is revelatory is how this film’s exposure of surveillance culture is increasingly tangled up in the agendas of its filmmaker and subject – with puzzles and perplexity that can risk clouding viewers’ judgement that threaten to obscure one of the most important issues of our time: state surveillance of the citizenry on a grand scale.
Two fundamental problems gnaw away at Poitras’s exposé. One is that the film she showed at the Cannes film festival in 2016 is not the Risk released in the US and UK this spring and summer. Among other things, Poitras recut the film – inserting a voiceover that reportedly virtually rewrites her impressions of Assange and is far more critical than the original.
Poitras periodically filmed Assange between 2011 and 2013. She then diverted her attention towards Snowden and made Citizenfour, only returning to Assange in 2015 and finding “his manner was new to me”. Risk duly records her doubts about the relationship: “It’s a mystery why he trusts me because I don’t think he likes me,” she says at one point in the film – and it’s true that Assange had been unhappy with the Cannes version of Risk, despite it being reputedly sympathetic towards him.
Poitras took the film away regardless and layered this new version with more self-absorbed meanderings from Assange and an enhanced focus on the accusations of sexual assault in Sweden that trailed him to London in 2010. A particularly excoriating scene with Helena Kennedy sees the high-profile barrister attempting to mould Assange’s public language about the accusations while he keeps insisting it is all part of his accusers’ ongoing lesbian conspiracy. “What’s their lesbian nightclub got to do with the price of fish?” Kennedy asks him in arguably the film’s priceless moment.
The film’s second problem is that it inhabits the same territory as Alex Gibney’s much-praised We Steal Secrets documentary from 2013. Given that so much in Assange’s world is built upon shifting sands, it’s easy to forget Gibney’s earlier movie which – unlike Risk – was dogged by the director’s inability to pin Assange down to an interview. But the critical immediacy of We Steal Secrets is fleshed out by commentary from some of WikiLeaks’ key former personnel, including James Ball and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who Poitras neglects in Risk.
Instead she relies on access to Assange’s right-hand spokesperson Sarah Harrison and his lawyer Jennifer Robinson and, most controversially, WikiLeaks’ tech consultant Jacob Appelbaum. Controversial because Appelbaum is someone Poitras admitted to having had an intimate relationship with. Risk’s voiceover confesses that they were “involved briefly in 2014” which resulted in some questioning Poitras’s recollection of the time frame, let alone her objectivity.
Only adding to the subtextual complexities, Appelbaum was then the subject of sexual assault allegations himself in 2016, including by someone Poitras claimed was a friend – and Risk feels obliged to dwell upon these contentions. As a result, Poitras loses much of the film’s main thrust when she indulges in the personal and starts citing Appelbaum’s questions to her about loyalty and betrayal – loyalty to whom and for what, we’re never told.
Becoming a protagnist
If Risk’s web of entanglement seems suspicious, it results from such total immersion into Assange’s world that the film stands accused of not knowing where Poitras’ impressions of the WikiLeaks organisation should stop and the verifiable details of their actions must take over. Has Poitras been duped into believing the myths surrounding Assange or is she complicit in reassembling those myths for the film? Here is someone who is no longer chronicler but an active participant in the surveillance war. “In the last two films, I have become more of a protagonist,” she claimed recently, adding that: “It is very uncomfortable.”
Risk is an intriguing yet frustrating documentary. Poitras tempts us with a gripping finale: Assange’s part in Donald Trump’s dramatic US presidential election win. But the conclusion seems more fascinated with Poitras’s and Assange’s falling out over the first version of Risk than it is in WikiLeaks’ part in Russian collusion with Trump. The film’s somewhat illusory climax therefore asks considerable questions of the intent of both filmmaker and film.
In this “golden age” of documentary, Steve Rose recently observed that: “Filmmakers start to outnumber potential subjects” – and the investigative credentials of factual films are surely tested as a result. Poitras, Assange and Risk certainly testify to the age of “alternative facts” and “fake news”. But answers to the big questions about surveillance politics only get more difficult when the distinctions between message and messenger become this blurred.