aura Poitras’s new documentary, Risk, is not a history of Wikileaks. There are plenty of resources for those who want to trace the history of the (in)famous website and its leader, Julian Assange. (Alex Gibney’s 2013 doc We Steal Secrets isn’t a bad place to start.) Instead, Poitras, who won an Academy Award for documenting the Snowden leaks in real time for her film Citizenfour, uses extraordinarily close access to Assange and much of the Wikileaks team to create a sort of portrait of the man who runs the website. The documentary covers about six years, right up to the DNC leaks and their aftermath.
Like Citizenfour, Risk shows human beings during extraordinary moments. Whistleblowing, leaking documents, surveillance, and the hacking of state secrets are some of the most important issues of our time; more than that, websites like Wikileaks and whistleblowers like Snowden perhaps have the unique opportunity to completely upend and reframe the relationship between citizens and their governments, both in America and the world. That Poitras has been able to document these events is incredible in and of itself; that she is able to make films that show her position while also letting viewers make up their own minds is truly impressive. The difference between Risk and Citizenfour, then, is that you leave Citizenfour thinking that Snowden—regardless of your beliefs about what he did—is a decent man, and one who believes he’s acting in the best interest of the America people. The portrait of Assange that emerges in Risk is much more complex and hard to reconcile with the work Wikileaks does.
At this point, I trust that everyone has their own opinion about Wikileaks and Assange, and, after the 2016 election, has a remedial understanding of how it is they operate. You can, of course, see for yourself at www.wikileaks.org. Assange has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London on asylum since 2012, where a large chunk of the film takes place. Until recently, he was wanted for questioning in Sweden regarding a sex crimes case, though there are longstanding questions about whether or not the case was being used as an excuse to bring him to Sweden in order to extradite him to the United States (hence his asylum). He is a man whose global missions are transparency and holding power accountable, and yet, as the film plays on, we see him as someone racked with contradictions, who may in many ways be the antithesis of his own purpose. Whether we—or Poitras—can accept that, is what Risk ends up being about. Not the history or effect of Wikileaks, but the man behind it.
About midway through the film, Poitras, in one of a series of voiceovers that populate the documentary as production notes, states that this is no longer the film she thought she was making. We see Assange joking around, getting his hair cut by a friend and watching television with his team. We see him on stage at speeches (at one point, with Amy Goodman and Slavoj Zizek; if you have two hours to spare you can see where that conversation went), hyper articulate about the purpose of Wikileaks. He is a man who likes being in charge—more than that, he is a man who likes being revered.
We also see him dismissing the women bringing claims of sexual assault as radical feminists, and degrading them with misogynistic language or cracking jokes about their sexuality. When Poitras leaves to film Snowden (for what would become Citizenfour), we see Julian consumed with jealousy that she did not give him access to Snowden. (Snowden chose to release his documents into the hands of a select few journalists so that they could curate the stories and protect the identities of parties that might be harmed by a simple data-dump; Wikileaks, on the other hand, has become far more cavalier in not redacting anything from their documents anymore, though they once did). A subplot of the film follows an associate of Assange’s, who worked to help citizen journalists, being accused of multiple accounts of sexual misconduct. All of this is filmed with such startling intimacy that we feel like we’re intruding—and that is, perhaps, how a good documentary should feel—but it also makes these moments hit harder. We aren’t listening to a talking head describe Assange as someone with problematic or reductive views of women; we’re seeing him play it out for us, on camera, apparently unaware of how bad his behavior looks.
By the end of the film, Poitras and Assange have fallen out—here is a response from their legal team about the film and Poitras—and we, the viewers, have to make up our own minds. Not about whether Assange is a “good” or “bad” guy—that’s an incredibly complicated question, though he certainly doesn’t appear to be someone you’d want to spend an afternoon hanging out with—but rather, whether or not we can reconcile Wikileaks’s mission with the man behind the site. This is a battle that has been playing out in our political discourse ever since the site first came to prominence, most notably with the “Collateral Murder” video. The site has been praised by both parties, but it has also been condemned by both. By the end of the film, which was continuously edited to keep up with unfolding events, we have seen the fallout from the publication of hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta to the Trump Administration calling for prosecuting Wikileaks and Assange, which would be a dangerous step against freedom of the press. The film ends with a title card and asks us to make of it what we will.
And so what do we make of this? Can we be repulsed by Assange but still find value in his mission? Can we question their motives and methods but understand that they have constitutional protections? Keep in mind, of course, that Wikileaks itself doesn’t do its own hacking, and is fiercely protective of its sources, and, for all claims and accusations to the contrary, has perhaps a perfect record of authenticity (this does not extend to their Twitter account). If Trump’s tax returns are somehow stolen, this would be the place they’d turn up. Were the Pentagon Papers released in 2017, it would almost certainly be through a site like Wikileaks, or a website of similar build and purpose. Perhaps the only question that really matters is whether we can separate Assange from Wikileaks. He is, for all intents and purposes, its living incarnation, a role he seems to relish. That he is constantly close to the public eye makes it harder to forget, or forgive, his own issues. In one of her voiceovers, Poitras states that “the contradictions are becoming the story.” If that’s how the Wikileaks story ends—a website and its creator, infinitely tied together yet completely inconsistent with one another—what kind of story is it? And if we are advocates of freedom of information, if we want to learn when laws are being broken, when rules of engagement are being bent, when politicians are steamrolling a primary candidate, how do we deal with the fact that the same man and same website that give us this valuable information may also be willing to act out of spite or vengeance, or position themselves as a weapon? Wikileaks offers truth; Assange offers contradictions. Poitras’s film shows us that neither offer answers to the other. Our conclusions are ultimately based on what we can stomach.