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The documentary Risk from director Laura Poitras is an engrossing and fascinating portrait of a man that history has yet failed to fully grasp. Julian Assange would like to be thought of as the Robin Hood of the information era, robbing the rich of their secrets and sharing them with the world. But Assange’s choice to make himself the public face of his Wikileaks organization has unquestionably gone to his head and rendered him a paranoid and strange figure who believes conspiracies against him are hiding behind every corner.
Risk was a strange endeavor for Assange from the very beginning. As Poitras points out in notes from a production journal that she added to the film as it evolved, she wasn’t sure why Assange wanted to be part of her project. Poitras doesn’t believe that Assange liked her very much and yet, he gives her unprecedented access to him. A scene of Assange meeting with his lawyer in a grove of trees where he appears deeply concerned about the possibility of drones listening to his conversation demonstrate not the charming spy schtick he seems to want to project but rather a strange, frail and paranoid man.
An early scene in the film finds Assange and a colleague attempting to contact then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Assange is so deluded by his perceived celebrity and importance that he thinks he can call and speak to the Secretary of State just because he wants to. Sure, Assange has something important to tell the Secretary of State about documents Wikileaks is about to release that effect US Intelligence, but to think any private citizen in the world can just call and be connected to the United State Secretary of State is beyond narcissistic.
Then there is the most talked about series of scenes in Risk, those dealing with allegations that Assange sexually assaulted two women in Sweden in 2010. Comically, Assange allows Poitras to film him as he puts on a disguise that he hopes will be enough to get him to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London where he is expected to get asylum from extradition to Sweden. The disguise proves silly and unnecessary but more to the point, allowing himself to be filmed putting it on only makes Assange seem strange and slightly unhinged. There’s only more to come on that front.
In a scene as chilling as anything in the currently unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal, documentarian Poitras captures Julian Assange attempting to use her camera to warn his two Swedish accusers. The scene begins on a darkly comic note with the delusional Wikileaks founder claiming his accusers are lesbians who are conspiring with the Democratic Party in a radical feminist conspiracy against him.
Then comes a chilling turn where Assange is being interviewed by Poitras about the allegations against him and speaking directly to the camera Assange states that the women accusing him of sexual assault will regret doing so because they will be "reviled by a large segment of the global population." Assange goes on to say, "I don’t think it’s in their interest" to pursue charges. If they want to save face, says Assange, they would say enough is enough and he would apologize for making them uncomfortable.
Assange then lays out why it’s so challenging for him to go after his accusers because there are two of them. He implies that if it were just one woman, one accuser, he could simply attack her and say she’s a bad person. Because there are two of them, Assange feels the public can’t differentiate between the two victims and it’s harder for him to attack them. The scene is bone-chilling and stultifying all at once. Assange sounds like a delusional villain who is using his documentarian to send a message to his accusers to back off.
The bizarre disconnect that comes about while watching Risk is staggering. Here we have scenes that portray Assange as something of a sociopath, a paranoid ego-monster who is using his celebrity to get what he wants. And yet, Poitras makes it impossible to forget that Assange is a charming and thoughtful man who is surrounded by women he seems to respect and who go out of their way for him because they believe in the cause of Wikileaks.
Indeed, Poitras herself believes in the cause of Wikileaks and never allows us to forget how important and historic Wikileaks’ accomplishments are. There is something to be said about whether it is irresponsible to release certain pieces of intelligence information but there is something else to be said about our government covering up things like spying on all Americans or killing journalists in Iraq. Assange is at once a monster and a historical figure for the post-9/11 age. It’s a dichotomy that I can’t help but find fascinating even as I find Assange to be monstrous.
There is a chance that the charges against Julian Assange are fabricated, celebrities have been known to be the target of falsehoods and schemes. But there is something so chilling about the way Assange addresses the charges in Risk. His decision to be filmed, essentially warning his alleged victims about what might happen if he were arrested, is monstrously narcissistic and, to me, makes him seem quite guilty. That he also believes his accusers to be part of some radical feminist conspiracy against him only serves to underline his potential guilt.
Is it possible to view Wikileaks aside from Julian Assange? Kind of. He’s made himself the public face of Wikileaks and so separating the two is a challenge, everything seems to run through Assange. It’s also further complicated because Assange associate and Wikileaks contributor Jakob Applebaum now stands accused of sexual harassment as well. Poitras, who admits having had a brief relationship with Applebaum, mentions the allegations against Applebaum near the end of the documentary and has stated that one of the accusers of Applebaum is a close friend of hers and that Applebaum had asked her not to include the allegations in her movie, a request she denied.
Risk evolved from a hagiography of Assange and Wikileaks in 2010 to a more complex and fascinating documentary today. There was a version of Risk that showed at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 that Assange and associates seemed pleased with. Then things changed: Poitras began to rethink her approach to Assange and Wikileaks after hearing disturbing stories in late 2016 and witnessing what she felt were sexist posts coming from the Wikileaks Twitter feed.
This is what caused her to go back through her footage and use the scenes of Assange speaking about his alleged victims and the damning scene of him accusing them of being part of a paranoid conspiracy. There is something to be said about the integrity of the first version of the film and Poitras’s motivation in changing the movie. But, what cannot be denied is, in its final form, Risk is a fascinating and complicated film and a must see for anyone interested in Wikileaks and Julian Assange.