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Inside the Cult of Assange

Documentary on WikiLeaks activist pulls back the curtain — and the view is unsettling.

Dorothy Woodend 4 Aug

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

It is hard to lose your illusions. Especially when they were once embedded with hope for a better world. Such is the case with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Laura Poitras’s new film Risk follows six years in the life of Assange, the leading figure behind WikiLeaks, the organization that has released hundreds of thousands of secret documents. The film is permeated by a slow, bleak disappointment that seeps through the narrative like dirty water. This does not make for the most electrifying story, but it is a necessary one, an awakening, if you will, from the fantasia of promises to change the world to the plain old boring stuff of betrayal, failure, ego, and blindness.

It takes a while to get to that place, and we, the audience, trail along behind the filmmaker as her faith slowly crumbles — a sad broken sugar cookie of faded promises and broken dreams.

Poitras began filming Assange before she made Citizenfour, her Oscar-winning portrait of Edward Snowden. Some comparisons between that film and this one are inevitable. Snowden even pops in for a scene or two in Risk.

But whereas Snowden’s story was fuelled by a looming sense of threat, as well as genuine idealism and courage, Assange is a decidedly more slippery character.

Survival and principles do not always cohabit very well, and it is easy to slide into rationalization for one’s less than savoury behaviour. This is where the film begins, over a drink, with Assange maintaining that his actions in leaking government documents have been prompted not only by ideology but also by practicality.

“There are many times, when I’ve have to be ruthlessly pragmatic,” he says. “It is to understand the medium term, or the long term goal in principle, when in fact, you will corrupt your principles in the short term, but be quite willing to balance one for the other, in order to actually survive the moment.”

As Poitras states: “I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story, I was so wrong, they are becoming the story.”

The emergence of WikiLeaks on the world stage began in 2006, but the organization gained global notoriety in 2010 with the release of some 700,000 documents from the U.S. military and state department.

The tumultuous tales of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were yet to come.

But at the time, WikiLeaks looked to be a new force, opening up hope for truth and transparency. Assange himself appeared a rebel warrior, possessed of a vision for a better, more open world. As the shadowy communiqués were publicly shared and the cleansing light of day scoured out the darkness, things would get better. Or so it seemed.  

Risk doesn’t concern itself overly with the history or role played by WikiLeaks, but rather with the man at the centre. The lion’s share of the screen time is taken up Assange, and what a scaredy lion he proves to be, easily spooked by random sounds and mumbling sotto voce about his role in shaping world events even as he keeps glancing around to make certain no one is sneaking up on him.

This nervousness is not without reason — the man has made some pretty profound enemies over the years, including the U.S. government, which is actively seeking his arrest.

In various hotel rooms and drab offices, punctuated by Poitras’s own thoughts drawn from her production journal, the story slowly uncoils, loop by loop.

A few scenes are particularly stunning. Under house arrest in London, while Swedish authorities request his extradition for allegations of rape and unlawful coercion, Assange meets with lawyer Helena Kennedy. As she tries to explain the nature of their defence and the language about sexual violence, he goes full conspiracy theory, describing a radical feminist plot involving a lesbian nightclub owner and rogue cop. Pity Kennedy, who can only stare in exasperated incredulity.

Every woman in theatre might have one of those “Aha” moments of recognition. It gets worse when Assange later explains to Poitras: “An actual court case is going to be very hard for these women… they will be reviled forever by a large segment of the world population. I don’t think it’s in their interest to proceed that way.’’

On and on it goes, and no one looks good, even when they are attempting to do that very thing. Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks editor instrumental in ensuring Snowden’s freedom, appears more like an insecure girlfriend, acquiescing to Assange and laughing nervously.  

Jacob Appelbaum, technologist and WikiLeaks journalist, filmed at a conference in Cairo confronting various representatives from telecom corporations about their role in aiding and abetting government censorship, appears like a champion of social justice. It is a stirring moment, but Appelbaum too is a problematic figure, as the film later reveals.

Assange’s supporters have included a range of folk and, at times represented something of a celebrity circus. Amal Clooney is briefly glimpsed, Daniel Ellsberg as well, and Snowden. When Lady Gaga shows up dressed like the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz and interviews Assange about his favourite food, one may be tempted to give up entirely on humanity. But Poitras keeps on, trying to make sense of it all and find some greater understanding.

As she says of Assange, “It’s a mystery to me why he trusts me, because I don’t think he likes me.”

The film moves back and forward in time, as indicated by Assange’s changing hairstyles, cropped short or grown Howard Hughes shaggy (the recluse special). Theoretical discussions and arguments about risk and threat levels have less impact than a scene of Assange attended by his followers, who are busily giving him a haircut, while he sits, smiling at his own reflection. No interpolation is needed. You can feel it catch in your throat, the cloying atmosphere of cult.

Poitras describes how Assange runs his organization with code names, denial and deception. Handwritten notes are carefully burned. Scenes of people staring intently at computers and hovering over whiteboards aren’t the most exciting stuff to watch, but worse is the suffusing atmosphere that feels cobwebbed with sticky shrouds of secrets. All this spy-versus-spy business culminates in a bad dye-job, coloured contact lenses and a ludicrous hat. It is a disguise that wouldn’t pass muster in a third grade Halloween party.

As the media scrum assembles to report on the UK Supreme Court’s ruling on his extradition to Sweden, a badly disguised Assange jumps on a motorbike and hightails it to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. And there he stays, in diplomatic purgatory, granted asylum by Ecuador but ringed round with British police, who will arrest him the moment he steps out the door. 

It would be funny, if it weren’t also tragic. You can most feel Poitras’s unease with what her camera captures. In an experiment observed, the observation itself changes the nature of the results. Here it is true as well. Assange is never off camera for long, and beneath its lidless gaze he undoes himself, revealing that behind all of the lofty rhetoric about changing the world are some uglier appetites.

The process of sorting through what it good and truthful from that which is self-serving and corrupt is ongoing. The film itself bears the evidence of this process, as the multiple edits that have taken place since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year will attest. After the film’s release, an outraged Assange reportedly demanded significant changes, and even attempted to stop distributors from releasing it — a painful reversal from someone who once championed radical transparency.

Being forced to spend 90 minutes with Assange occasionally feels like an eternity and one develops deep empathy for the British policemen ranged outside the embassy, who look bored almost to zombification.

Lord knows it is tempting to dismiss him as just another white dude with a God complex, especially as there are so many of them around at the moment, but the facts remain. Wikileaks did change things, and helped people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who acted in the name of decency and justice.

But eventually Assange’s obsessions become a self-perpetuating, and self-aggrandizing thing. Even his own people seem worn out. In conversation with another WikiLeaks staffer, Assange is told that he is proving toxic to the organization, provoking an extended rant. Unable to control his frustration, the staffer says, “This is my debrief, so can you just keep quiet!” Assange lasts little more than 30 seconds before he interjects again.

Can you be a terrible person and still do good? One thing does not cancel out the other entirely, but it certainly changes the nature of one’s understanding and assessment.

But here is where things get interesting. Apart from the macro events of wars, elections, and government malfeasance, it the smaller micro calamities of hurt feelings, betrayal, and broken faith that most endure.

These personal injuries are not limited to Assange alone. You hear it in Poitras’s mournful disembodied voice. You see it in the faces of hackers assembled at a conference to talk about the “sickness within the community” and to address how “it was covered up, hidden or enabled.” Despite the jaunty asymmetrical haircuts and patterned scarves of the assembled hackers, the mood is deeply sad, elegiac almost. This is nothing new in movements failing, undone by fallible flawed humans, or leaders accused of using their power to abuse women. (Jacob Appelbaum, as well as Assange, is accused of sexual misconduct, a fact that Poitras herself reveals.) Maybe it’s the very cliché of it all that stings so much.

Even when she sounds exhausted with the story, Poitras does the right thing. She keeps on, she does not spare herself, nor does she equivocate her own role or hide her own pain. It is a brave and sad thing. It speaks powerfully of her dedication to her craft, but more importantly to the hard, occasionally shitty, work of getting the story straight, of going back in when you would rather run far away.

At the centre of great political struggle and upheaval, what is there but sticky, fragile human emotion, soft and scared as a snail, but still poking out its horns. In the end, the ambiguity that permeates the film cannot settle, there is no resolution, only the ongoing work of figuring it all out. And, as mundane as that is, it also feels true.  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

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