Risk is an unsparing portrait documenting the life of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Like Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden, Risk is a similarly intimate portrayal of Assange. Filming in secretive spaces behind the scenes, we get to witness the workings of of international activists seeking to expose secrets, and in doing so we gain insight into the paranoia – and also arrogance – that defines both Assange’s and Wikileaks’ work.
Poitras first approached Wikileaks in 2010, after they published the Apache helicopter video documenting US soldiers gunning down Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists, which was leaked by former soldier Chelsea Manning.
Poitras began filming in 2011 after the Arab Spring had begun, and the US government had launched a multi-agency investigation into Assange and Wikileaks. Back then, they were the champions of hacktivists and freedom-of-the-press advocates, and the fact that governments seemed to be threatened by them made the group even more appealing to those who believe all censorship is bad.
It’s clear that in 2011, when Wikileaks’ prominence was at its height, there was a certain smugness and conceit. We see Assange getting his associate, Sarah Harrison, to phone Hillary Clinton to inform her that passwords had been leaked and that he needed to speak directly with her. Harrison is told by a member of Clinton’s staff that Assange doesn’t have a high enough security level to talk to Clinton, and Assange is clearly irritated. It’s breathtaking (and hilarious) to see such self-importance and egotism, and highlights the swagger with which Assange runs Wikileaks.
However, there are many moments in the film where even the most security-conscious person might sympathise. One particular scene with Jacob Applebaum from the Tor project (who worked with Wikileaks) where he publicly attacks the CEOs of the Egyptian telecoms companies for blocking Twitter during the Arab Spring uprising and severely limiting the freedom of the general public, gets the viewer on side and positions Wikileaks as information freedom fighters. In this context, it’s hard to oppose security leaks and hacks when you can see how repressive restrictions online, and in telecoms, have a troubling impact on democracy.
But democracy comes with responsibility, and Risk explores the possibility that Assange has had a role in the victory of Donald Trump winning the USA presidential election last year. American intelligence officials have accused Assange of publishing material stolen from computers of Democratic groups by Russian operatives, and that this tipped the 2016 election in Trump’s favour; for this, they have declared Assange a “hostile intelligence service”.
Poitras has said she accepts that “it was a Russian hack and that they used a cutout or an intermediary to submit it”. She admits that she believes Assange had a role to play. “Julian says his source is not a state actor. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Risk is a revealing portrait of Assange, and not a particularly complimentary one. When he’s not sounding arrogant he comes across as sexist and frequently misogynist; his views on women paint him in an ugly light.
Though Wikileaks is viewed through a mostly positive lens, which will certainly please information activists and freedom-of-the-press advocates, its association with Assange is tainted; it seems clear that Wikileaks’ principles and progressive digital activism have become weakened with Assange continuing to lead the organisation and that it can no longer claim to be non-partisan.
Poitras seems to conclude that Wikileaks itself is fundamentally important to speak truth to power, but that to truly be independent, and for Wikileaks’ release of information to be trusted, Assange needs to disassociate himself with it. But as is clear from Risk, and from Assange himself, that that is unlikely to ever happen.