Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (b. Bradley Edward Manning 1987), Citizenfour (2014), Dr. Glenn Greenwald (b. 1967), Jeremy Scahill (b. 1974), Julian Assange (b. Julian Paul Hawkins 1971), Laura Poitras (b. 1964)
LUMPENPROLETARIAT—In order to make informed decisions about what positions to take, it is our civic duty as citizens to be informed about what’s going on in our world and its centers of power. A new documentary film, Risk, directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras is somewhat helpful in that regard. Poitras is most well-known for directing the 2014 film, Citizenfour, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
In Citizenfour, the whistleblower and protagonist, Edward Snowden was very methodical in his approach to avoiding the trappings, which go along with developing a cult of personality. Snowden, the whistleblower, made it clear to Poitras, the filmmaker, that he did not want the story she documented to be about him. Often, important messages are overshadowed by the messenger. Snowden made it clear to Poitras that the story he was presenting concerned state domestic surveillance and other policies, which harm the interests and Constitutional rights of the American people. So, not surprisingly, Snowden’s image in the film appeared heroic. Laura Poitras’ documentary focus was kept on the crimes of state, not any potential moral crimes of the messenger. His personal character never came under scrutiny. And Edward Snowden’s heroic portrait was further reinforced by Oliver Stone‘s timely iteration, which featured an ensemble cast starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title character.
Risk, which is about the WikiLeaks organisation, or rather its founder Julian Assange, on the other hand, is another type of documentary film entirely. Laura Poitras began filming Risk, initially titled Asylum, before filming Citizenfour. It seems, perhaps, now that Poitras, having won an Academy Award for Citizenfour and earned a certain level of credibility, or even street cred, with having risked her personal safety and liberty with her involvement with whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, she returned to her long-running work on her WikiLeaks documentary project with a different attitude. Here we see Poitras abandon the wide-scope view of social context, which she employed in Citizenfour. Instead of the wide-scope view to keep the focus on the sociopolitical message not the messenger, Poitras adopted a very narrow focus on Julian Assange, the messenger, rather than the message of the WikiLeaks organisation or its diverse members, or the important function of a publisher such as WikiLeaks. Perhaps, Assange: A Moral Case Study, might be a more descriptive title for Poitras’ latest documentary film.
In contrast to Citizenfour, Risk tends to put the character of WikiLeaks’ male leaders on trial. But then, Assange, with his less than charming facets, does seem to invite a form of attention, which Snowden has never done. And Assange’s associate Jacob Appelbaum didn’t help the image of Assange’s WikiLeaks organisation when he made an inappropriate (or culturally insensitive) analogy between condoms breaking, safe sex, and safe computing at a digital workshop in Tunisia. And, meanwhile Assange as a public figure and whistleblower is arguably facing much more difficult circumstances than Snowden. Assange, of course, caught a case of sex crime allegations from two women in Sweden. So, Assange sought and was granted asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, to avoid extradition to Sweden, which would almost certainly lead to a later extradition to the United States for his work in WikiLeaks. It’s exceedingly obvious Julian Assange is one of the most wanted people by the USA, the world’s most powerful national government, essentially, for practicing good journalism, for engaging in the only profession protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Poitras was never quite explicit in the film, nor in succeeding interviews and discussions about the film, that Julian Assange is a sex offender. But at some point in the documentary, Poitras shifts her attention away from WikiLeaks and the broader world of whistleblowers to a microscopic focus on Julian Assange’s personal character. After a certain point, perhaps after Citizenfour, Poitras began to consistently insinuate and suggest allegations against Julian Assange, which appear to be subtle character assassination. Or, at the very least, Poitras seems to have taken decisive steps to complete her WikiLeaks project after her success with Citizenfour, in a way, which preserved most of her journalistic integrity whilst distancing herself from Julian Assange, who is still considered an enemy of the U.S. government. It’s almost as if Poitras simply decided her documentary film would no longer be about WikiLeaks and the broader important sociopolitical issues and, instead, be only about Julian Assange or some alleged culture of male sexual predation within WikiLeaks. According to WikiLeaks’ attorneys, Poitras’ defied her agreements with Assange and the WikiLeaks organisation by filming people who were not supposed to be filmed and by taking footage out of context. Also, according to Poitras herself, Poitras engages in gonzo journalism, or cinéma vérité, by becoming a part of the film. Poitras has to admit in her film’s narration, that she engaged in a romantic affair with WikiLeaks’ Jacob Appelbaum during the filming of Risk. At this point, the documentary film seems completely compromised by conflicts of interest. Eventually, Poitras’ Risk is forced to document the fact that the sexual allegations against Julian Assange were dropped for lack of evidence. Yet, the legal exoneration of Julian Assange doesn’t alter Poitras’ evident condemnation of him as some sort of male chauvinist, homophobic, anti-feminist pig, or from prioritising the gender issues within WikiLeaks over the larger sociopolitical issues of justice, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the First Amendment, and other human rights.
By 2015, it seemed Laura Poitras, Academy Award in hand, no longer needed WikiLeaks or Julian Assange to further her career as a filmmaker and industry luminary. (Poitras seems very comfortable now producing less-subversive or less-controversial (or less-radical) short-form human interest story documentaries for Field of Vision, a First Look Media project. First Look Media is the philanthropic journalism project founded in 2013 by billionaire e-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar with the expert legalistic and journalistic input of Dr. Glen Greenwald. Omidyar’s First Look Media is “a collaboration with [Dr.] Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras with a promised $250 million in funding from Omidyar, also gave birth to The Intercept, a news organisation for “aggressive and independent adversarial journalism”.) Apparently, Poitras’ decision (perhaps with collaborator Dr. Glen Greenwald) to publish the Snowden leaks through The Guardian (and later through The Intercept) instead of WikiLeaks, when Poitras had already begun working with Julian Assange on a documentary about WikiLeaks, was also a point of contention between Poitras and Assange.
The great public advocate and political leader Ralph Nader has famously argued that one shouldn’t have to be a saint to be a political leader or a political advocate. And Ralph Nader has also admitted to avoiding being caught up in sexual allegations and scandals by being very careful about avoiding suspicious propositions from women. This is why Nader never married; he has pointed out the great strain, which intense political activity can put on a spouse. We know it’s a great sacrifice people like Ralph Nader make when they dedicate their lives to their careers in public service working to make society better because it often means such people must often live solitary lives. We now know that famous leaders, such as MLK and JFK, were documented in their extramarital sins by their political opponents as means to undermine their political efforts. So, if we’re going to charge Julian Assange harshly and call him a sexist or male chauvinist, we must be prepared to do the same for all such beloved leaders. But, as Ralph Nader can attest, if one wishes to be an effective public advocate or political leader, and if one is male, one must be nothing less than a perfect gentleman at all times or risk being brought down by allegations of moral wrongdoing or scandal. Shills and political sabotage abound. If one gets caught slipping, right or wrong, it could mean the end of one’s credibility, political influence, or career.
Whether Risk depicts Julian Assange in a heroic light or in an unflattering light, it is undeniable that his contributions as well as those of the entire WikiLeaks organisation, like the contributions of Edward Snowden, working with filmmaker Laura Poitras and lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald, have benefited the world greatly.  Risk premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. And it is currently being screened on the Showtime cable television network and various online video streaming services. Check it out at a friend’s place if, like me, you don’t have an expensive cable subscription.
Risk (2016) directed by Laura Poitras
Risk film-screening Q&A at an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, posted on YouTube on May 9, 2017. Jeremy Scahill moderated Q&A with Laura Poitras. [Video begins after about eight minutes of long blank silence, c. 8:00.]
“Director Laura Poitras’ falling out with Julian Assange” by Associated Press (AP), posted to YouTube on May 10, 2017. This is a very brief news clip, 90 seconds long. But it seems designed to discredit Julian Assange. Poitras is first quoted saying that she disagrees with some of WikiLeaks’ publications not being “newsworthy” or not being redacted properly. Then, she is forced to admit that WikiLeaks is a legitimate publisher, which has played a very important role in public understanding of domestic surveillance and its impacts upon freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Then, the AP editors cut to a clip from Risk, in which Poitras’ narration laments: “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 are becoming the story.” But Poitras is never explicit about what these “contradictions” are. But, given the sexual allegations against Assange, Poitras’ insinuations are obvious. Most of the film operates under this premise of mystery and scandal permeating Assanges’s sex life, even as she documents his legal exoneration. The AP editors, then cut to Poitras admitting that Assange wanted her to “share some of the documents” with WikiLeaks; but she refused. Presumably, this is a reference to Poitras deciding not to publish Edward Snowden’s historic disclosures through WikiLeaks. And this caused a “bit of a falling out” between the two during the filming of Risk, initially titled Asylum. AP doesn’t give us any more information than these cryptic remarks from Poitras strung together to paint Assange as some sort of villain. But a closer examination of these events reveals that Poitras actually became a competitor with WikiLeaks, as she angled to promote her own news publication, The Intercept, on which she collaborated with journalists Jeremy Scahill and Dr. Glen Greenwald.
“Assange objects to new Wikileaks documentary” by RT UK, posted to YouTube on July 25, 2017. An attorney for Julian Assange, Melinda Taylor, explained legal objections to Laura Poitras’ film Risk.
 As others have pointed out, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade or so, most readers will likely have already heard about the characters featured by documentarian Laura Poitras: Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, et al. But if you haven’t, for background starting points, see here and here and here.
Instead of keeping the focus on the political issues, Poitras focused in on the personal contradictions of the embattled WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. It turns out, as with other admired historical figures in history, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, Assange is likely a womanizer and a male chauvinist. But, whereas admirers of MLK and JFK preferred to keep personal failings in the closet, today’s documentarians, such as Laura Poitras, feel compelled to make the story about the messenger, rather than the message, when they feel personally slighted or offended.
There are many useful film reviews at the aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Tom Huddleston of Time Out summed up Laura Poitras’ Risk very well, calling it: “A jaw-dropping profile of one man’s battle with world governments, common decency and his own out-of-control ego.”
[2 OCT 2017]
[Last modified at 12:32 PDT on 9 OCT 2017]