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WikiLeaks: Secrets & Lies: SXSW Review

Julian Assange
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

The Bottom Line

Just-the-facts doc is dry but useful look at collaboration between WikiLeaks and mainstream media

Venue

South By Southwest film festival, Documentary Spotlight

Director

Patrick Forbes

Production Company

Oxford Film and Television

Patrick Forbes takes a closer look at the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks and the group's brief but tumultuous collaboration with mainstream newspapers.

AUSTIN - Looking with healthy skepticism at the brief career of the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks, Patrick Forbes's WikiLeaks: Secrets & Lies focuses almost exclusively on the group's brief but tumultuous collaboration with mainstream newspapers. In tone and format, the doc is best suited to small-screen distribution, but it boasts a degree of access to participants (including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange) that will attract attention wherever it is seen.

Assange is interviewed at length here, and if he comes across as a man of sketchy ethics and motivations he has only himself to blame: While his former partners at newspapers The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel answer questions directly, prioritizing fact over opinion, Assange is hesitant, prone to evasive defense of his actions and to blanket statements, such as "all institutions -- all -- are engaged in unjust activities," that justify decisions others see as reckless.

To be fair, Assange is answering more questions of a philosophical nature than his newsroom counterparts, who are mostly giving a blow-by-blow account of how they met Assange, how they worked out their elaborate co-publishing scheme, and the challenges that arose during their three massive publications of classified material related to wars and diplomatic relations.

We follow as these journalists form favorable first impressions of Assange ("I liked him," says The Guardian's Nick Davies), are soon amused by his theatrics and odd behavior, and eventually have fallings-out over matters of journalistic and personal ethics.

Non-media interviewees are kept to a minimum, with the exception of former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an earnest-seeming man who quickly explains how he too broke with Assange. Others, like hacker Adrian Lamo and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, make dramatically engaging but brief appearances onscreen.

Forbes takes a strictly chronological approach, churning through the affair speaking almost exclusively with direct participants. (We only learn of outsiders' opinions via occasional sound-bite news clips.) Cinematic effects are almost entirely avoided -- the most dramatic thing Forbes does is to edit images of wounded Afghan civilians into shots of war logs that employ euphemisms to discuss casualties.

A good deal of attention is paid to the U.S. government's treatment of accused leaker Bradley Manning, but even here the subject is mostly used as an illustration of a specific decision Assange made in dealing with the leaked data. Discussion of Swedish rape charges against Assange are similarly focused.

 

Director: Patrick Forbes
Producer: Mark Bentley
Executive Producer: Nicolas Kent
Music: Justin Nicholls
Editor(s): Kate Spankie
Sales: Emma Kemp
No rating, 81 minutes