Julian Assange and the Banality of Access
“Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person,” Julian Assange says in Risk, in what is either a rare moment of unvarnished honesty or an attempt to impress Lady Gaga. Few people would try to out-weird Gaga to her face, but as we learn in Laura Poitras’s latest documentary, Assange is one to try. It’s October 2012, and the publisher of WikiLeaks has already been hunkered down in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for months, making the “Born This Way” chanteuse a welcome celebrity visitor. He is fresh off the release of yet another classified document dump on his activist website; she is fresh off the release of a new perfume line at Harrods down the street. Their conversation, as captured by Poitras’s team, digs deep, very deep. “What’s your favorite food?” she asks him.
Assange opens his mouth, and a roving, almost nonsensical monologue comes out, followed by the comment that he’s not a “normal person,” which seems a hubristic thing to say to a woman who has lately accepted a music video award wearing a dress made out of raw beef, complete with a flank-steak handbag.
It’s tempting to write off this exchange as comic relief—a breath of zany fresh air in what is otherwise heavy viewing—and why not? Laughs were certainly part of the plan. “I love the scene for its humor, I love the scene for its insight, for how surreal it is,” Poitras told the Daily Beast earlier this month. But there’s a reason almost every reviewer of Risk has seized on the scene as an important one, beyond the fact that Lady Gaga, an undeniably famous person, says funny things in it, all while wearing a pointy black hat that could easily belong to a Halloween witch. Access is what we’re interested in when it comes to Assange, and this scene captures in painful detail how readily he both promises and denies it.
A bizarre mashup of ideological purity and self-regarding cynicism works to scramble our usual definitions of access, leaving us unsure of what Julian Assange has revealed.
Assange wants everyone to know he is above questions as trivial as “What’s your favorite food?”; such minutiae cannot conquer him. He has better things to do, like roam his cloistered room in the embassy (his refuge while he waits out extradition orders) and, oh yes, direct a global network of leakers, hackers, and lawyers committed to using covert methods to force governments toward radical transparency. This bizarre mashup of ideological purity and self-regarding cynicism works to scramble our usual definitions of access, leaving us perennially unsure of what Assange has revealed, or even why it matters.
The Gaga scene, then, is a perfect abstract for the rest of the film. Poitras won an Oscar in 2015 for directing Citizenfour, her documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden, but well before then, Risk was already in the works. Shot over the course of six years, the Assange footage shows, on the one hand, how far Poitras and her film crew were permitted to venture into the WikiLeakers intimate circle. “Sometimes I can’t believe what Julian allows me to film,” Poitras says in voiceover, boldly departing from her cinéma vérité style for the sake of a claim that could have been uttered by any garden-variety documentarian intent on promoting her wares. And that, on the other hand, is where Risk leads us: to the banality of access, which gets warped under the sway of Assange’s gravitational field.
Poitras runs with it, allowing questions about access to power the film, even if they risk repeating the questions we already know to ask about Assange, or echoing questions embedded in the documentary genre itself. Is to gain access always to become compromised? “This was not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story,” Poitras says in another voiceover, and you’d have to have spent the last six years living in a bunker—or perhaps an embassy anteroom—not to catch her drift.
Assange, as we already know from his TED talks and his Twitter account and all manner of video-facilitated media appearances featuring his disembodied tow-haired head, can be bold, charming, cunning, idealistic, paranoid, or simply juvenile. His misogyny is impossible to avoid—and not just for the allegations of sexual assault that he faces from two Swedish women (no charges have yet been filed). Risk only amplifies that picture. Assange’s own lawyers seem exasperated with him at times, particularly during a scene where he blames “radical feminists” for his legal problems. As the scene continues, Assange mulls how one accuser might be ripe for character assassination, but he decides it’s far harder to torpedo the reputations of two accusers. Going public with their accusations could be difficult for the women, Assange proposes, implying that WikiLeaks supporters would make their lives miserable. Perhaps, he says, adopting a vague, conditional tone, he could apologize for whatever hurt he may have somehow caused. Later in the film, he states his belief that these accusations actually brought him and his organization valuable attention. A “sex scandal every six months” might be a way to maintain his high profile, he says.
We’ve been told that Assange and Appelbaum are either devils (they feed on sex crimes) or saints (they feast on free information alone).
If we’ve learned anything new about the king of leaks here, it’s that Assange—even though he’s long maintained that his own persona and conduct are effaced by the importance of his ideological quest—is perfectly willing to descend to the level of personal trivia when it suits him. Character, preferences, status: all these can be weaponized, and the cause of radical transparency itself can be conflated with his person. But his favorite food? That is beyond the pale.
Gaga’s best efforts notwithstanding, we never do get a straight answer from Assange about his eating habits or how he manages to survive his embassy isolation, but the film shows him sparring with a boxing trainer, like he’s training for a secret mission. Assange runs WikiLeaks as if it were an intelligence agency, using code names, practicing compartmentalization, wearing disguises, and wiping down hotel rooms for fingerprints. That Assange lets Poitras document this anti-documentation behavior, and yet gets jumpy whenever someone asks him about his feelings, is either a profound observation about the man or—and here we return to the banality of access—not very interesting at all.
The WikiLeaks coterie is not large, and neither is it varied. Assange has a kind of twin in Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher, journalist, and WikiLeaks confidant known for his work on the Tor project. Last June, after a website appeared with testimonials accusing Appelbaum of various forms of assault, sexual misconduct, and bullying, the celebrated hacker resigned from Tor and largely disappeared from view. But Poitras had already filmed him for Risk, including a scene in which he bravely stares down a group of Egyptian telecom executives, accusing them of censoring Twitter and other websites during the very revolution they’re now celebrating. In another instance, we see Appelbaum looming over a headscarfed Tunisian activist, practically groping her as he demonstrates something on her computer. Later he tells the woman and her colleagues that maintaining good computer security is like practicing safe sex—to the obvious discomfort of his culturally conservative audience.
Having been endlessly told by various partisan sources that Assange and Appelbaum are either devils (they feed on sex crimes) or saints (they feast on free information alone), we could be forgiven for finding any glimpse of what they eat or say or do behind closed doors to be hopelessly overdetermined, or for becoming slightly impatient when an otherwise skilled and engaging documentary appears to let its subjects move the ball again and again.
Questions about access power the film, even if they risk repeating the questions we already know to ask about Assange.
Fortunately, that’s not what Risk does in the end. No one could accuse Poitras of valorizing her subjects, and that applies to Appelbaum, whom she admits to dating briefly, as much as Assange. She lays bare the accusations against them both, and reveals that Appelbaum was abusive toward someone she knew. “Because I defend them doesn’t mean I defend everything about them,” she told the audience after a recent screening I attended in Brooklyn. She found some of Assange’s comments “disturbing.” Her goal, she explained, was to “create different attitudes and opinions and hold them simultaneously.” She will defend Appelbaum and Assange’s acts of publishing—“these are two of the bravest people I know”—but their characters are something else. (If this line feels hackneyed, that’s because it is—it’s the one that many of us on the left adopted long ago, for better or for worse.)
More important, Poitras has made what she reportedly feared would be the film’s greatest weakness—namely, the inclusion in it of her own voice—into its greatest strength. This is where Risk begins to seem like a brand-new story. We learn that Poitras didn’t share the Snowden leaks with Assange because she didn’t trust him. That decision contributed to the fracturing of their relationship, which seems to fall apart after Poitras shows Assange an early cut of her film. (The film has since been recut to include more recent developments, including the accusations against Appelbaum and Jeff Sessions’s ominous promise to hunt down leakers.) After years of offering Poitras remarkably close access, Assange shuts down, explaining that he considers Risk “a threat to my freedom.”
Poitras may have as much to lose as anyone. While Risk is unlikely to make you change your opinion one way or the other about Assange, even if it does occasionally make you feel as if you’ve been offered a dirty window into his world, it has infinitely more to teach us about what journalists like Poitras are facing in our present climate of unfettered surveillance. There’s a chilling moment in which we hear a recording that had been leaked to Poitras of an FBI special agent conducting an “insider threat” briefing. The agent, Louis Bladel, calls Poitras an “anti-U.S.” filmmaker and practically tars her as an enemy of the state. For Poitras, who has been investigated by a grand jury on terrorism charges for filming a battle in Iraq and who has been frequently detained, with her electronics confiscated, at U.S. border crossings, the dangers to her freedom are more than theoretical. The film asks, “How much of your own life are you willing to risk?” It’s the sort of provocative question tailor-made for the militant Assange, but one leaves this film feeling that it’s Poitras who has put everything on the line.