'Risk': Cannes Review

An insightful portrait.

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange is the subject of Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras’ return to the theme of global surveillance.

In a telling moment during the filming of Laura Poitras’ aptly titled Risk, WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Julian Assange remarks that he doesn’t believe in martyrs, he believes in people taking risks for the things that they care about. “The risk of inaction is extremely high.” That is the take-home that will inspire like-minded audiences as they exit the theater of this fine activist documentary telling not only one man’s story, but warning against the immense threat posed to civil liberties by unchecked electronic surveillance in the name of security.

In what could almost be considered the fourth installment of Poitras’ trilogy tracing the post-9/11 world of government surveillance and sweeping anti-terrorist laws, Risk sympathetically revisits the last decade of whistle-blowing by Assange and the organization he co-founded in 2006, focusing on the personal price he has paid for risks he felt had to be run. Assange’s calm intelligence and unwavering political activism, along with the courageous outspokenness of other members of his team who include Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum, will inspire and hearten the kinds of audiences who embraced Poitras’ Academy Award-winning portrait of Edward Snowden, Citizenfour. The film culminates in a outcry for his release from Ecuador’s London embassy, where he has lived as a virtual political prisoner for the last four years, and in that sense the film is a powerful work of activism in itself.

Its major difference from Citizenfour, which has been acclaimed as a defining documentary of our time, lies in the director’s journalistic luck of having been present in the Hong Kong hotel room when Snowden began releasing classified U.S. government files about secret data gathered from electronic sources. Lightning is obviously not going to strike twice, and in that sense Risk is not as special an achievement. Poitras’ urgent but precise, unflappable tone lacks the flamboyant showmanship of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, who draw audiences into their value systems through provocation and controversy.

Still, there is much to appreciate in Poitras’ low-key, down-to-business approach which employs instinctive editing choices, and not her own persona (she never appears onscreen), to build the most revealing portrait of Assange and his WikiLeaks staff in the public domain. (Who knows what Washington has gleaned in its 42,000 pages of secret investigations on him.) The coolness under fire of the Australian journalist and computer programmer is impressive, as he and British WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison try to cut their way through the legal forest hemming him in. American journalist and computer surveillance expert Jacob Appelbaum, who reported on the U.S. spying on German chancellor Angela Merkel, makes a rousing appearance at a Cairo press conference in which he denounces the booming shadow industry of tech companies specialized in spyware, the same ones that froze the Internet to impede Egypt’s democratic revolution.

Beyond these fetching characters are the issues, which the film never loses sight of: the ability of the Internet to give citizens real democratic power, and the determination of governments to use every technological means at their disposal to amass power by secretly monitoring and spying on the population. WikiLeaks’ right to publish U.S. State Department cables and other unredacted material from sources like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden goes unchallenged.

Interestingly, Poitras began filming Assange when he was still a free man in 2011 but already under massive investigation in the U.S. Given that WikiLeaks sent Sarah Harrison to accompany Snowden on his famous flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, it isn’t unreasonable to guess that it was Assange who put Snowden in touch with the filmmaker. Certainly Poitras and her subject seem to be on the same wavelength, sidestepping the trivial personal side of his predicament to make their point.

The film permits itself a single note of humor when it captures a bizarre interview of Assange by a black-clad Lady Gaga, who gets a laugh when she expresses shock at his cramped living quarters. She asks personal questions, which he dodges (“What does it matter how I feel?”) while filming him on a tiny vidcamera (as she is obviously being filmed herself by Poitras’ crew). As he rattles off a seemingly endless list of agencies and institutions who have him in their sights, Gaga cuts to the chase with a curt: “So, a lot of people are after you, eh?”

Rather than feeling out of place, the sequence illustrates the fundamental absurdity of his position, trapped in the friendly Ecuadorian embassy under round-the-clock surveillance by British police, unable to leave England to be interrogated in Sweden on questions of sexual offenses he denies committing, for fear of being extradited to the U.S. where a standing grand jury and a very long prison sentence may well await him.

American activist Daniel Ellsberg, who released the top-secret Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war back in 1971, makes a brief appearance in which he expresses his support of Chelsea Manning’s revelations, and notes the fast difference between government secrets then and now.

Production companies: Praxis Films

Cast: Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Appelbaum, Lada Gaga, Daniel Ellsberg

Director, screenwriter: Laura Poitras

Producer: Brenda Coughlin

Executive producers: Michael Bloom, Adam Pincus, Charlotte Cook, A.J. Schnack, Jess Search, David Menschel, Josh Braun

Director of photography: Kirsten Johnson

Editors: Melody London, Laura Poiras

World sales: Submarine  

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight)

97 minutes