Risk offers inside view of Wikileaks founder as his world shrinks to a few rooms
Laura Poitras chose the world's most famous film festival to unveil Risk, her new documentary about controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
The setting of the premiere in Cannes is important because it offers maximum exposure to Assange's plight -- without international attention on his case he presumably will continue to languish indefinitely in Ecuador's Embassy in London.
I definitely think [Cannes] is an important and a good platform to be able to display the work that we do and the threat that we face.
Risk played in the auteur-driven Quinzaine des Réalisateurs [Directors Fortnight] section, which runs parallel to the competition portion of the Cannes Film Festival. An audience numbering around 800 turned out for the premiere, afterwards showering Poitras and Wikileaks' Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum -- key characters in the film -- with applause and a standing ovation.
Risk is not intended to be a dispassionate view of Assange, a polarizing figure in some quarters who is wanted for questioning in Sweden in connection with alleged sexual offenses against two women.
Poitras -- in her follow up to the Academy Award-winning citizenfour, which focused on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden -- takes a "fly on the wall" approach, filming Assange as he pursues his mission of pulling the veil off government secrets. He engages in something of a cat and mouse game with antagonists in the U.S. State Department and government security agents -- although who is the cat and who the mouse is debatable.
The film does not get into the substance of the allegations in Sweden against Assange. One is left with the strong impression that Assange is the victim of a political conspiracy aimed at destroying Wikileaks -- although Poitras includes an ambiguous comment from Assange indicating he might agree to apologize for any unintended harm done to the women he was alleged to have assaulted, if they would acknowledge the whole thing was blown out of proportion.
Risk charts the walls closing in on Assange as Sweden pursues his return to face questioning and, one-by-one, British courts deny his appeals to avoid extradition. Poitras is there as Assange disguises himself, gets on a motorcycle and heads to Ecuador's Embassy in London for asylum. He's been holed up there since 2012, much to the irritation of British authorities.
Poitras shows footage of Assange inside the Ecuadorean mission over those four years, continuing his work -- as seen in citizenfour, he helps Snowden avoid capture and gain asylum in Russia. At other points his spirits seem to sag. There is a poignant moment of Assange boxing with a personal trainer in an attempt to stay fit -- very much the prisoner who in his case doesn't even have access to 'the yard.'
Risk is very much a companion piece to citizenfour. But the Edward Snowden of that earlier film was a compelling figure with a kind of charming innocence -- someone an audience could respond to emotionally because they could see the clarity of his purpose and the forces arrayed against him.
Assange is a much more enigmatic figure who seems ill-disposed to reveal himself emotionally [there is a highly amusing scene in Risk where Lady Gaga, of all people, interviews him in the Ecuadorean mission, presumably for her social media feed, and tries vainly to get him to speak openly about his feelings. Gaga does get him to say something about his father being a remote figure to him -- perhaps a tantalizing clue to his iconoclastic personality].
But what really matters, to Poitras, is the issue of character -- and there she finds Assange and Snowden to be morally equivalent individuals -- people who have chosen at great risk to do what they think is right. The implicit question behind the film is what we are willing to do to protect our freedoms in the face of growing government intrusion.
Poitras' willingness to assume such risk is clear. Her documentary work has subjected her to suspicion and scrutiny by the U.S. government. There is a disturbing moment in Risk where a recording leaked to the filmmaker shows an FBI agent referring to her as "anti-American." When adherence to First Amendment values is considered anti-American, there is great cause for concern.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.