Theater of Cruelty

From inside the maze

Regissør: Laura Poitras

Risk is incomplete as a study of the WikiLeaks and Julian Assange website, but an interesting human document.


“Selfish, but also brave. He works with the image of himself – he is strong, but also very vulnerable. ”This is one of the first thoughts Laura Poitras – best known for Citizenfour, the solid documentary about Edward Snowden from 2014 – does when she works on her new film about Australian Julian Assange.

Assange is the man behind the biggest channel for leakage online of more or less secret info. Poitras' reflections on the protagonist and WikiLeaks regularly appear in voice-over throughout the film. The director is obviously his admirer, but she also fears him, yes, she does confounded by him: He is more erratic, has a bigger ego and is more concerned with using the information he has access to than Snowden. Both are whistleblowers in a way, but where Snowden had a clear mission – a limited, defined mandate – it's more unclear what role Assange plays.

Is sharing democratic? Assange believes that "the population deserves to know what is actually happening behind the scenes," which is especially true of major news organizations and state apparatus, including intelligence agencies. A pivotal moment for WikiLeaks, which carries this ideology, took place the site published a video footage showing US soldiers killing Iraqis wandering on the streets – accompanied by despicable comments from the public. The man who leaked the movie to WikiLeaks was the now very famous Bradley Manning, who was released last year after six years in prison.

The film continues to raise interesting themes. To put it most centrally, it seems intuitively correct that "everyone, regardless of who they are, should have access to all information," as the WikiLeaks journalist and activist Jacob Applebaum says in the film. But is that so safe now?

Assange is more erratic, has a bigger ego and is more concerned with using the information he has access to than Snowden.

It's here Risk really moves in the direction of something important: When there is doubt as to whether free access to information is an "unconditional good", we must listen. For a number of challenges emerge if we follow this line of thinking, which also touches the Achilles heel of democracy when the latter is understood as "full openness". People can end up in danger, and the individual who leaks information can gain a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to whose they are leaking, when they leak, and – above all – what the delicious. We saw this clearly in the American election, where precisely information leaks had a significant impact on the outcome. WikiLeaks was behind 70 emails that went to or from Hillary Clinton – and these had Assange & co probably received from Russian intelligence. So the controversial site is not optional a good force in the world, it may seem – could we even say the site is unfair?

The personal becomes political… Men Risk is unruly itself – obviously intentional – but the result is undeniably both messy and stumbling. The movie begins with the rape charges, the biggest stain on Assange's reputation. The theme almost sneaks in when Director Poitras is in the process of highlighting the themes of information sharing and democracy. The rape charges are something she – yes, everyone, can seem like – mustn't have answers to. Do they vote or do they not vote? Is Assange a cynical abuser of women, or is he the victim of a conspiracy due to his key position in the information economy?

Who knows? – but the suspicion weakens his reputation, and that he blames a conspiracy between radical feminists and Swedish police does not make the situation better. This happens when his closest gently encourages him to face the charges.

"I thought I could steer clear of the contradictions – but I was completely wrong," Poitras says in her commentary, which is certainly also a siding she gets a bit stuck in. As she gets further into the environment around Assange, the protagonists are also revealed egocentrism. He shows no interest in the women and their rape charges, but instead grows more and more – and it ends up that most around him lose confidence in him as the leader of WikiLeaks.

Is Assange a cynical woman abuser, or is he plotting a plot because of his key position in the information economy?

… And even more politically. But that doesn't stop there, because soon there will be rumors of Jacob Applebaum, who immediately appears to be a far less whimsical type than Assange. Yet he avoids questions and spotlight, and goes underground when the charges reach the surface. Once again, through Poitras' lens, we are forced to see the political through the personal. "Applebaum wants it to end differently, and so do I," says the director.

So how does it all end? In one way it doesn't end at all – and as a documentary on WikiLeaks and democracy viewed, the film is definitely weak. Still, there are other aspects to it Risk which is thought-provoking: The film says something about how person and politics can be twisted into each other with such fine threads that we no longer see what is what. It also says that not everything is easy to answer, and that we – human and fallible as we are – often get lost in mazes when we try. Even when we want the good. Who can't recognize themselves here?

Risk thus gives no clear answers. But when Poitras talks about what she wanted to find out from inside the "maze," she touches on something general human that is worthy of attention. Risk is only partially successful as a Wiki-Leaks documentary, and hardly enough, but all the more poignant as a human document of both the complexity and perhaps poor judgment of both the director and the Wiki-Leaks boss. Watch the movie – just don't expect a new one Citizenfour.

The film premiered in cinema in October.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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