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Director Alex Gibney is firing back at Julian Assange, the central figure in Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. “People are finally seeing the darker side of Julian Assange, the fact that he doesn’t tell the truth, that he lies,” Gibney said.
Since May, when the documentary was released theatrically, Assange and his supporters have been circulating what they presented as an annotated version of the movie’s screenplay, charging that “the film is filled with factual errors and speculation.”
At first, Gibney ignored Assange’s critique of the film, but after realizing in recent weeks that WikiLeaks supporters are continuing to circulate the annotated screenplay, he decided to respond in kind, producing what the filmmaker calls “the annotated annotated transcript, which shows how silly most of the criticisms are.” Gibney’s document can be found at http://goo.gl/1nT64o.
The Assange-annotated version of the screenplay was first posted online on May 23, the day before We Steal Secrets was released in theaters. “It seemed initially as if he’d hacked into our cutting room,” said Gibney, saying of Assange, “He likes to suggest to people that he has this enormous power that he doesn’t really have.”
But as Gibney studied the transcript, he realized about a third of the movie was missing — specifically, the Internet chat and email exchanges between Pfc. Bradley Manning, who now goes by the name of Chelsea Manning, and former computer hacker Adrian Lamo, whom Manning met and befriended online. In the film, their exchanges are presented visually on the screen, instead of through voiceover, which led Gibney to believe that Assange had not acquired the actual screenplay, but was relying on an audiotape of the film which someone recorded — possibly when it first played at the Sundance Film Festival.
Gibney’s initial reaction was that the critique “was kind of ridiculous on its face. We tried not to pay too much attention to it, but he was always sending it around.” But last month, as the film was released on DVD and became available on platforms like iTunes and Amazon, “that got Assange’s attention again,” Gibney said. “Suddenly, he was sending out this annotated transcript to a lot of people.”
Since the Assange-annotated version of the screenplay first appeared, it has been updated, and it now refers to sections of the film that were missing when it was first posted. In creating his own annotation, though, Gibney decided to use Assange’s original post, since that original version had been widely circulated.
Some of Assange’s criticisms Gibney dismisses out of hand. Assange didn’t participate in the making of the film, and the introduction to Assange’s WikiLeaks annotation says, “the stock footage used has also been heavily edited, in some places distorting what was said. This is unprofessional and irresponsible in light of ongoing legal proceedings. It trivializes serious issues.”
In his annotation, Gibney responds, “The only accurate statement here is that the ‘stock footage has … been heavily edited.’ This is true. Over the course of two years we reviewed hundreds of hours of footage, including scores of talks by, and interviews of, Julian Assange. We ourselves conducted nearly one hundred hours of filmed interviews. Compressing hundreds of hours of footage into a two-hour film requires ‘heavy editing.’ It also requires one to be deliberative and precise. Throughout this editing process, we took great care not to distort the positions of anyone featured.”
One of the central questions that the documentary explores is whether Assange considered whether any of the information released by WikiLeaks could endanger any lives.
At one point in the film, as it discusses the information known as the Afghan war logs that came from the material provided by Manning, British journalist Nick Davies says in an interview, “During the four or five weeks when reporters were working on the Afghan war logs, all of us became concerned that there was material in there which, if published, could get people hurt on the ground in Afghanistan.” He then goes on to say, “I raised this with Julian and he said if an Afghan civilian helps coalition forces he deserves to die.”
As an illustration of the competing annotations, the WikiLeaks annotation notes, “Assange has always maintained he never said this and made a formal complaint to the Leveson Inquiry [the British hearings about press ethics] about the veracity of Davies’ evidence.”
The Gibney annotation counters, “Assange claims that he did not say what Davies attributes to him. But, as evidence, WikiLeaks refers to a statement by a different Guardian journalist, David Leigh. The links they include refer to Leigh, not Davies. …The fact is that Assange is contradicting Davies’ claim by referring to a statement made by someone other than Davies at a dinner that Davies never attended.”
Another issue the doc raises is whether federal prosecutors have filed a sealed indictment against Assange as Assange has contended, claiming that it is part of an American-Swedish conspiracy against him.
On Nov. 18, the Washington Post broke the news that “federal prosecutors have not filed a sealed indictment against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, despite persistent rumors that a nearly 3-year-old grand jury investigation of him and his organization had secretly led to charges, according to senior law enforcement sources.”
Javier Botero, an associate producer on the film, said, “The sealed indictment has been a huge part of Assange’s arguments about an American-Swedish conspiracy. He also brings it up at several points in his annotations as key evidence for why our film is wrong. But the whole thing is just based on one boastful line in a 2011 leaked email from an ex-government official; no other evidence has ever come out. We address the issue of a sealed indictment in the film. It should be noted that the sealed item is just that: a rumor.”
While Gibney first dismissed Assange and WikiLeaks’ attacks on his film, he now believes it did have an affect on the film’s box-office performance. Released by Focus Features in May, it grossed just $166,243, never playing in more than 24 theaters. “It was more effective than I thought,” Gibney said. “He caused preemptively a lot of people not to see it, which when you think about it is kind of ironic. Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.”
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