Oscar-winning Director Laura Poitras Talks About 'Risk', Julian Assange and WikiLeaks

Gary Thompson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

The untangling of power, politics, and sex seems ever more difficult these days, and Risk is Exhibit A.

While I was on the phone last week with Laura Poitras, director of the new Julian Assange/WikiLeaks documentary Risk, FBI director James Comey was on Capitol Hill calling WikiLeaks “intelligence porn".

That seems a strange way for an official to designate WikiLeaks and its publication of classified material, but Comey spends a lot of time reading Anthony Weiner emails, so perhaps it’s understandable.

The untangling of power, politics, and sex seems ever more difficult these days, and Risk is Exhibit A. To make it, Poitras started interviewing WikiLeaks executive editor/founder Assange several years ago, expecting to compile a journalistic chronicle of whistle-blowing in the online era, instead watching the story morph into a tale of sexual assault, power dynamics, and gender.

At the outset, Assange regarded Poitras as an ally (“I don’t know why he trusts me; he doesn’t even like me,” she says in the film) but they ended up falling out -- he saw a cut of the film and declared the documentary a threat.

That is, coincidentally, how Comey views Poitras. She is hounded by U.S. intelligence officials wherever she goes (she moved to Berlin to avoid it), and she has filed suit seeking evidence as to why Comey’s people seem to be convinced she is a threat to national security (she was once placed on a watch list).

Poitras is certain there is no such evidence. She feels the intelligence community is mainly trying to intimidate her -- a posture toward journalists that seems to have bipartisan support, she said, and that continues no matter who occupies the Oval Office.

“We just came out of the Obama administration, and they were pretty harsh on the press and leakers, and it was a tough time to be doing journalism. Now you have Trump, and he basically ran a pretty virulent anti-press campaign,” she said.

For these reasons, she’s “conflicted” about her rift with Assange. She feels WikiLeaks is a unique conduit for crucial information that needs to be in the public realm, but as the film began to take shape, an unflattering portrait of Assange began to emerge.

“I had deeply conflicted feelings. I continue to support the WikiLeaks mission of journalism and publishing important and revealing information, but I had to confront also the contradictory feelings I had about (Assange) as an individual,” she said.

And that meant dealing with the issues that have caused Assange to seek asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he went to avoid Swedish authorities (and by extension possible extradition to the United States) who wished to question him about allegations of sexual assault.

Laura Poitras

One riveting scene in the movie shows a belligerent Assange bullying his own (female) lawyer, who is trying to give him helpful advice about how to discuss the allegations without being … belligerent.

Then the movie gets weird (not merely because Lady Gaga shows up to interview Assange, asking him about his feelings).

An Assange ally and key figure in the film, Jacob Appelbaum, an encryption expert and activist, is also accused of sexual assault (no formal charges have been brought, and he denies the allegations). Appelbaum had been part of the WikiLeaks inner circle and was a key figure in Tor, a web-anonymity group (where the allegations surfaced) that develops encryption for secure, antisurveillance communication.

This development put power-gender dynamics -- and Poitras -- front and center. She had dated Appelbaum and reports that in the film. For Poitras, that was difficult. She’s not a flamboyant character in her films, like Michael Moore. In fact, she rarely appears at all.

“First of all, I’m a huge admirer of Michael Moore, both as a filmmaker and as a person,” she said, acknowledging they have different styles. “But I felt I needed to represent (this) in the film, particularly as the allegation regarding Jacob came into play. I knew I needed to include that in the film, and I knew that I had to disclose that we had been involved. That wasn’t an easy decision. I’m a private person, and also … wading into these conversations about gender and abuse, these are complicated things to talk about. It can get vicious on all sides, but I felt I had an obligation to do it.”

As a journalist and director, she felt it had become a significant element in the film.

“Within a social movement, sometimes there is a stark contrast between larger ideals and social dynamics of the group,” she said. “Oftentimes, they don’t get discussed, and that’s why it’s important to discuss them. I don’t want to undermine (the goals of groups like WikiLeaks), but I don’t want to excuse bad behavior.”

Poitras has spent seven grueling years making Risk -- during that time she also made (and won an Oscar for) the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour. She has helped organize and produce a series of short-form documentaries -- one of them is a look at the U.S./Mexican border country called Good Luck with the Wall, that will be shown in some theaters before Risk.

As for Risk, I asked her whether she has had additional contact with Assange and whether he’d changed his view of the movie.

“I showed it to him in April. He wanted some things removed. I didn’t.”

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