Documentary maker Laura Poitras first came to light for me with her film Citizenfour, a doc about Edward Snowden that’s an astute exploration of modern censorship, read my thoughts on that here. With Risk, we’re given inner-circle access into Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks world, his personal character, the fallout of military information leaks and the knock-off effect of WikiLeaks on the last American election.
Filmed over a six-year period, Risk is a very unusual documentary that’s intense and somewhat peculiar but it never stops raising questions about Assange’s character, about the perception of truth in global information and also the role of government in trying to stop him, across numerous intelligence agencies. It’s hard to like Julian because his character isn’t one that sets out to please, even if you agree with his underlying motives, he’s elusive in many senses.
While it’s hard not to agree with Assange’s belief in the basic rule of giving everyone the opportunity to use the internet anonymously if they want to, as there’s definitely an argument it should be a human right to do whatever you want online (as you would offline), the documentary takes a flip away from what you’d expect it to do. Laura Poitras provides a voiceover from her own production diaries and raises a significant point when realising she can’t ignore the contradictions she’s seeing.
While it could have been about the fallout of the WikiLeaks being hacked/US military secrets being released, what we observe is Assange’s understandable lifetime of paranoia and watching his back. In a private interview with Lady Gaga he admits that he’s obsessed with what he does, but you’re never quite comfortable with his manner. What doesn’t help is his estranged, on-edge relationship with fellow WikiLeaks cohort and journalist Jacob Appelbaum, who is obviously hyper-intelligent, because when they’re together you feel an underlying fuel of ego, delusion and entitlement… conceivably because of everything they know but can’t say.
One moment that stood out for me, and the difficulty that never left me throughout the documentary, was how I felt about Assange and his intentions. There’s one scene where they cut Julian’s hair and for the first time, it had an essence of a cult who fawn over him, whatever he does. While you could argue they have every right, or more so understandable reasons, to be paranoid given their circumstance, they have put themselves into this position after years of hacking and uncovering secret information. Despite all this, you wonder if he enjoys the chaos he creates and could even encourage it to serve his own image. That’s an interesting point when you think he’s doing everything he can to stay in and out of the loop at the same time.
Risk teaches us that ‘they’re’ always watching him, and he’s certainly watching him, so maybe the bigger question is who’s letting who do what? Is it easier to know where Assange is but let him continue down whatever roads he wants to go? Does he believe he’s ahead of them, or deep in the depths of the secrets they don’t want sharing? Is it all a game, or does Assange let those around fight for the cause while he takes the flack?
While Risk is deeply interesting, it’s also unerringly disturbing and even as Poitras questions her motives for making the documentary and wondering where it’s going, you do start questioning what’s true and what’s being displayed as a character because it’s impossible to tell what the truth is, and you half conclude that’s maybe the whole point of everything Assange does.