review by sorcha kelly
I like to give bad reviews. My favourite activity in life is to give a terrible film zero stars in same manner that people who eat questionable food, continue to eat the blue coloured chicken then throw up the next day. Walking into Poitras’ new project, I was excited to slate it. Surely, nothing could compare to the Academy Award winning Citizenfour – Poitras’ new centrepiece, Julian Assange, proving more reprehensible than fascinating especially in comparison to Citizenfour’s Edward Snowden? Surely, Risk was set to be a let down. Its first showings in Cannes presented yet another problematic portrait of Assange the Hero who observes, yet mitigates troubling behaviour towards women. I felt certain that I wouldn’t actually still care that much, two hours after leaving the theatre while eating my dinner, and neither would the general public? I was wrong.
Risk is by no means a perfect film. I don’t believe, however, that Laura Poitras intended it to be. There’s an uncertainty to Poitras’ filmmaking that was missing before; an artist who once had a fixed vision, now found interrogating herself, her work, and everything she believed in. Her helming of the film proves something incredibly important to keep in mind during this era of ‘Fake News’ and ‘post-truth’ (I gag as I say the words): media, including journalists, are fallible and so is Laura Poitras.
We experience Assange, in Risk, through point-of-view shots in his most incredulous and intimate moments as public enemy number one. Ridiculous shots of Assange trying to get in touch with Hillary Clinton – only for them to explain that he “is not on an appropriate level” to converse with the Secretary of State – act as an exposition for even more ridiculous moments wherein Assange prepares his disguise to evade arrest and extradition to Sweden before ending up in the burlesque of the Ecuadorian Embassy being interviewed by Lady Gaga.
Risk, thankfully, questions Poitras’ initial favourable portrayal of Assange in the first cut through the re-editing of material and the addition of Poitras’ “production notes” monologue. In this monologue, Poitras is unafraid to reveal her view of Assange as an egotist and her own personal romantic relations with Jacob Appelbaum. Sans the monologue, the most revealing part of the film is Assange’s disparaging comments against his victims/accusers in Sweden. The phrase “radical feminist” is spat along with homophobic comments against a woman who accused him of inappropriate sexual behaviour; the small words of a small man who apparently has nothing to hide. For all of Assange’s progressive views on public freedom; Poitras’ reappraisal of his character represents the celebration of this public figure as flawed. Not a complex man, but a man of “contradictions” that Poitras admits she can no longer live with.
Risk proves itself to be a living, breathing exploration of media and relationships amidst the added strain of new age surveillance, whistleblowing and the continuing McCarthyist ideal of guilt by association. With Poitras' self-insertion into the documentary and her revelations about personal relationships with the WikiLeaks family, Risk asks us to question whether we can separate a person, a figurehead, from their movement. Within the patriarchal structure of the WikiLeaks empire, can we isolate and defend the work of people like Appelbaum and Assange, when we are aware of their flawed characters? No matter what public service these people enact or the greater good they claim to work towards, sexual and violent crimes – the same kind WikiLeaks attempts to expose in the Middle East – always deserve punishment. Yet, much like the crimes WikiLeaks exposed, Assange and Appelbaum will never be “pierced for [their] transgressions” although they shall never truly be expunged. Laura Poitras seals their fate.