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The biggest risk of all

Laura Poitras' sequel to Citizenfour is a thriller-like portrait of the people behind WikiLeaks. 


Directed by Laura Poitras
Germany / USA 2016


This month, the Storting considered the government's proposal to allow expanded use of what is called "hidden coercive means" – a collective term for, among other things, room and communications interception, hidden camera surveillance and – new for this year – data reading. In an interview with Morgenbladet 27. In May this year, lawyer John Christian Elden expressed his skepticism about the proposal, which he believes could end with us creating a thought police where any everyday, evil thought expressed to his own family can be interpreted as harassment or threat. He concluded the interview with a reminder: "Remember that sometimes there is reason to be a little paranoid when the monitoring actually takes place with the blessing of the state."

Laura_Poitras_2014In his previous documentary, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour from 2014, filmmaker Laura Poitras did a great job of telling us why this paranoia may prove to be justified. When in 2013 she received encrypted emails from an anonymous person who called herself "Citizenfour", she had no idea the extent of the story she, as a filmmaker and private person, was about to become a part of. The sender turned out to be Edward Snowden, and when Poitras met him in Hong Kong six months later with two journalists from The Guardian and The Washington Post, it became clear that this seemingly paranoid young man had good reason to pull out all the sockets in the hotel room before he told them what he knew.

Great risk. Laura Poitra's new documentary Risk, which this year was featured in Cannes' Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section, must probably be said to be a precursor to Citizenfour rather than a sequel. The film deals with WikiLeaks and, first of all, Julian Assange, and pretends to be a project Poitras temporarily put on ice when she was contacted by Snowden in the winter of 2013. Similar to Citizenfour spiller Risk looks like a thriller – the tempo is high, the tone is dramatic, and there is always something at stake. From the very first scene, this becomes clear: The film starts at the WikiLeaks editorial office in England, with co-editor Sarah Harrison trying to get then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the line to warn the US State Department that a huge leak of classified documents is imminent.

The biggest risk we face is not doing anything.

From this point, we follow the WikiLeaks team, led by Assange, Harrison and journalist Jacob Appelbaum, in the aftermath of the leak, and through further key events in WikiLeaks history: Bradley Manning's leak of classified documents, the rape allegations against Assange, and Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency. These events are sorted into ten detached but chronologically ordered segments, where an early highlight comes with Appelbaum's visit to Cairo during the Arab Spring: During a heated debate, he puts a row of morbid representatives of various telephone and internet companies to the wall, as he confronts them with their kneeling before the Mubarak regime during the revolution, when they limited or cut off the Internet and mobile networks.

In this scene – and in several others – it becomes clear how much security risk the journalists expose themselves to through their ongoing struggle for freedom of expression and transparency – an aspect that constitutes one of the documentary's main themes, as the title suggests. At one point in the film, Assange expresses concern about the media's coverage of Manning, and how they portray him as ill and weak-willed. Such a story undermines the fact that he basically acted of his own free will – an aspect Assange believes everyone can and should learn from, in that the biggest risk we face is to do nothing: "The risk of inaction is very high. »

Assault allegations. In January 2013, when the feature film about WikiLeaks The Fifth Estate was still being filmed, Assange revealed in a lecture that he had gained access to the film's script. Assange's verdict was not lenient – he called it a propaganda attack on WikiLeaks and himself, and accused it of being inciting war in his depictions of Iran. The reaction is understandable: the Hollywood machinery is powerful, everyone knows that, and as a medium, the film has the opportunity to create an illusion of logic and causality where there was not necessarily any connection from before.

So here too: Through its episodic form does not try Risk to create some kind of coherent narrative, but there is still an important aspect of the story that one would expect to be put under the microscope to a greater extent: The abuse allegations against Assange are interesting for many reasons – the timing of them has, as is well known, created fertile ground for theories that it's all a conspiracy to blackmail Assange and have him extradited to the United States – but Poitras still chooses to keep this at arm's length. One might object that this is how she makes films, that she observes rather than intervenes, but in a film like this, the absence of confrontation at this point feels like an obvious shortcoming.

Sacrificed own freedom. But then again, one can not say that the film claims to be an exhaustive portrait of Assange. What we perceive of his personality is rather glimpsed – as in one of the film's comic sequences, where he is interviewed by Lady Gaga at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he currently lives in an asylum. Gaga asks a series of unmotivated questions about favorite food and family, whereupon he finally breaks in: "Let's not pretend for a moment that I'm a normal person."

He's probably right about that. "Free Julian Assange" could be read on several posters in the hall after the screening in Cannes, where Laura Poitras, Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum were all present. During the introduction to the film, it became clear how much each of them has sacrificed for the cause. Assange is in political asylum for the fourth year, and Appelbaum and Harrison live in Berlin, where they have been told that they can be imprisoned if they return to Britain or the United States, while Poitras has been branded anti-US and has received threats. if not to be allowed into the country again. The irony is clear: In the struggle for freedom, they themselves have had their own restricted.

Danielsen is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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