Julian Assange Smiles for the Camera, Then Blows It Off

Watching the many trials of the WikiLeaks founder. 

Praxis Films

Near the beginning of Risk, Laura Poitras’s new documentary about Julian Assange, we’re shown a bizarre, bird’s-eye view of the WikiLeaks founder as he exits a London courtroom. He had just attended a hearing regarding Sweden’s request to extradite him over claims of sexual assault, but the gravity doesn’t seem to weigh on him. Flanked by his lawyers — among them Amal Clooney — Assange calmly jostles his way past flashing cameras, Guy Fawkes masks, and dreadlocked hippies playing guitars; a sea of bodies so vast it bleeds off screen.

It’s the perfect portrait of the subject at the center of the hurricane that is Risk: standing taller than the crowd, silver-haired and calm, he’s alone at the center of chaos. And it’s chaos that seems to drive Poitras’s film, more than Assange himself.

Risk is a much more ambitious film than Poitras’s last work, Citizenfour, which won her the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015. Where Citizenfour’s narrative was focused on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks — with most of the action taking place in a Hong Kong hotel room between Snowden and two Guardian reporters — the story in Risk is long, expansive, and complicated. The film takes us on a rapid-fire journey through the last six years in the fight for government transparency and digital privacy. From Chelsea Manning’s military leaks, to Snowden’s asylum in Russia, to the DNC hacks, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks seem to be the linchpin in every major information-related news story.

“I think Julian is somebody who occupies a historical place,” Poitras said during a Q&A after a screening of the movie at Lincoln Center earlier this week. “He understood the effects of the internet … he understood how the internet would change journalism, and he understood how surveillance would also change journalism.”

Producer Brenda Coughlin and Laura Poitras discuss 'Risk' with Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Linclon Center, at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City on May 2.

Sean DiSerio

Despite his prophetic character, he remains a difficult subject. When interviewed, Assange speaks in vague, flowery generalities about politics and morals, and he really isn’t interested in revealing anything intimate about himself. Still, you can tell he enjoys the attention. “He’s aware of the camera, and you try to reveal that he’s aware of the camera,” Poitras said.

The most revealing moments in the movie actually come when he’s speaking about the most contentious subject in his life — the allegations of sexual assault made against him by two Swedish women in 2010. In one particularly cringe-inducing scene, he chalks up the allegations to a “tawdry, radical, feminist conspiracy” — much to the aghast of his female lawyer. This arrogance, and stubborn refusal to really grapple with a situation that will soon imprison him inside a single building in London, is fascinating. We never even hear Assange’s side of the story, because he refuses to tell it in any detail. But it’s moments like this that you really get a sense of who he is: confident and unyielding, no matter what.

Despite already having premiered Risk at the Cannes Film Festival last year, recent developments compelled Poitras to go back into the editing room mere weeks ago. With WikiLeaks’s release of the DNC emails, and subsequent comments from Attorney General Jess Sessions in April that he will be making the arrest of Assange a priority, Poitras felt the narrative needed an update. The new version runs about ten minutes longer and includes these developments, as well as new revelations of alleged sexual abuse by Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum, who is also featured in the film.

Poitras said Assange wasn’t happy with the way Risk portrayed him before it debuted at Cannes, and it’s hard to think he would be happy with this version, either. Despite his attempts at an iron-clad persona, Risk does grant incredible access to Assange in a way we’ve never seen before, with footage chronicling his bizarre life for almost six years. “I think when you’re somebody who is picking as many fights as he’s picking, which is a lot … you realize you’re putting your freedom and your life on the line,” Poitras said. “To have a documentarian record him, I think he feels a value to that.” Or maybe he just likes the attention.

Risk hits theaters Friday, May 5.

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