Laura Poitras turns her camera on the WikiLeaks founder for an unsparing portrait that exposes his retrograde views on women.
Before he sought asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in 2012, Julian Assange ensconced himself in a hotel room along with his mother and donned a disguise. He dyed his hair, added colored contact lenses, and threw on a motorcycle jacket to evade the authorities.
Laura Poitras’s camera documented that transformation, and the scene comes as just one of several astoundingly intimate moments in her new film Risk, which documents the life of the WikiLeaks founder as he catapulted onto the world stage. Released Friday, Risk represents perhaps the most revealing portrait to date of Assange, casting him by turns as an egomaniac, a sexist if not misogynist, and principled activist.
Like her Oscar-winning portrait of whistleblower Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, Poitras’s portrait of Assange is a marvel of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. It enters the secretive spaces in which a coterie of international activists attempt to expose the most closely guarded secrets of its enemies, principally the United States. It’s work with an immense cost.
“The film documents a person who is increasingly with limited options and increasingly cornered,” Poitras told Foreign Policy in an interview. “There’s a human toll that comes along with that.”
Assange’s profile has only grown since the 2016 election. American intelligence officials have accused him of publishing material stolen by Russian operatives from the computer systems Democratic groups and operatives in a bid to tip the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor.
Poitras does not deny Assange’s role in that operation. “I accept that it was a Russian hack and that they used a cutout or an intermediary to submit it,” Poitras said. “Julian says his source is not a state actor. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
American officials have denounced Assange as a patsy for the Kremlin, and last month CIA Director Mike Pompeo blasted WikiLeaks as a hostile non-state intelligence agency actively working against U.S. interests. Justice Department officials have said they plan to crackdown on leaks and have intimated they may bring charges against Assange.
Poitras documents the toll that his campaign has taken on Assange. That primarily concerns his paranoia — but also his egomania, which fuels his at times immense hostility toward women. While Poitras defends WikiLeaks’ right to publish, her film does not shy away from what she describes as Assange’s “troubling” statements about women.
In the film, Poitras hoists Assange on his own petard. Wanted by Swedish authorities for questioning on sexual assault allegations, Assange describes himself as the victim of a radical feminist conspiracy. He argues that one of his accusers has no credibility because she founded Gothenburg’s largest lesbian nightclub. Assange comes across as deluded and afraid, both of the possible legal consequences and the damage to his sense of self. It’s no wonder he considers the film a threat to his freedom.
Assange is not the film’s only character accused of sexual assault. Jacob Appelbaum, the WikiLeaks activist and alleged sexual abuser, appears repeatedly in the film and makes a memorable appearance at a Cairo conference during which he castigates a group of telecom executives for their complicity in cutting off internet access during the Arab Spring.
After Poitras debuted last year a version of Risk at Cannes — which reportedly was far more positive toward Assange — several women came forward to accuse Appelbaum of a pattern of sexual assault. Poitras recut the film and included the allegations against Appelbaum, with whom she reveals she had a brief affair.
An advocate for the rights of whistleblowers, Poitras asks her audience to consider, as the title of the film implies, the immense risks taken on by those who chose to challenge state power and expose secrets — and to hold that bravery side by side with the revolting personal opinions and alleged actions that movement’s leading lights.
“I’m going to defend journalism that I think is newsworthy,” Poitras told FP. “I’m going to speak against anything that I perceive to be abusive or derogatory, but I can still defend WikiLeaks and their right to publish.”
With WikiLeaks already reviled in many (though certainly not all) quarters of the United States, it’s a gambit most American audiences probably won’t buy. But as with most historical figures, Assange is a tangle of contradictions, fiercely loyal to his closest lieutenants, but also supremely selfish.
At times, Assange comes across as almost a cult leader. In one memorable scene, a group of WikiLeaks volunteers cut his hair while watching ridiculous music videos, Assange’s face reflected in a gilt-edge mirror.
Indeed, the film can delight in the absurd. The singer Lady Gaga, dressed in an all-black outfit that recalls the Wicked Witch of the West, makes a memorable cameo in which she repeatedly tries to get Assange to talk about his feelings. She achieves no breakthrough.
In an early monologue, Poitras tells her audience that she can’t believe some of the things Assange will let her film, that he is both managing his image and being astoundingly vulnerable. But it can be difficult in the film to parse whether Assange is projecting an image or displaying his true self.
“I think I have a pretty good bullshit radar,” Poitras says. “I’m only interested in something that feels authentic.”
But, she cautions, “that doesn’t mean that the camera ever goes away.”
While Assange’s obsession with secrecy and surveillance can read as paranoia, Poitras says it’s justified. “Julian has managed to piss off really powerful people,” she says. “I wouldn’t call that paranoia.”
That paranoia defines Assange’s work, and Poitras echoes the CIA director’s description of WikiLeaks when she says in the film that WikiLeaks is run like an intelligence agency — using denial and deception and compartmentalization of information with Assange imperiously overseeing it all.
Ultimately, Poitras turns the tools and tactics in which Assange has schooled her back on the WikiLeaks founder. Poitras played a key role in the Snowden disclosures and did not inform Assange that she had been contacted by the NSA whistleblower.
Assange considers it the ultimate betrayal — or perhaps Risk has now claimed that title.
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