If I’ve got my timelines correct, when Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (CitizenFour), was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with Edward Snowden and a pair of journalists, she was actually in the middle of making another film that would become Risk, an expansive and endlessly fascinating profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Less a biography and more of a dissection of the man that begins in 2011, before Assange went into self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, attempting to evade Swedish authorities who would have him extradited for alleged sexual offenses. The access granted Poitras is, once again, astonishing, but it’s the openness with with Assange speaks around her that is perhaps the most surprising, considering it’s clear he trusts no one and doesn’t really seem to like her either.
Risk is a project during which Poitras is clearly conflicted about her subject. She’s a smart enough filmmaker, storyteller, and reporter to know that turning the cameras off and walking away would be a huge mistake, especially when the rest of the world was attempting to learn anything about this man. We see Assange as he prepares to unload thousands of classified documents, including those provided to him by Chelsea Manning, as he responds to sexual assault charges by two women in Sweden, and even a bizarre, prophetic moment when Assange attempts to contact then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to warn her about documents about to be released by another outlet.
We see those closest to him, including Wikileaks section editor Sarah Harrison, who we find out deep into the film is also (or at least was) Assange’s companion girlfriend and the person who WikiLeaks sent to help Snowden escape Hong Kong to go to Russia. We also meet Assange’s right-hand Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker and security adviser who later left the company, also because of sexual abuse accusations. But his work with the Tor Project—a means of countries under siege to get documents out to the world to expose corruption, war crimes, and other bad deeds—was a crucial part of what WikiLeaks supported for many years.
Perhaps the strangest and most purely entertaining part of Risk involves Assange in a hotel room with his mother as she assists him in getting into a disguise just as the London courts rule to allow him to be extradited to Sweden. The hair dye, colored contacts, biker outfit, sunglasses and newly shaven facial hair add a spy-movie vibe to the whole affair that is almost comical if it wasn’t so serious.
Poitras dives into issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and fully transparent governments, and the film has clearly been updated since its premiere at Cannes last May to include updates involving the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leak through WikiLeaks (allegedly receiving material from the Russian government or an intermediary) that some say tanked Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. If I understood this portion of the film, it does appear that Assange was looking for a source for equally damaging material about Donald Trump’s campaign and simply couldn’t find any.
Much like the experience of watching Citizenfour, I watched both world-shaking and deeply personal moments in Assange’s life pass before my eyes, almost in disbelief. Risk is a film that simply should not exist; yet there it is, and it reveals so much about the state of modern journalism (a grossly uninformed interview of Assange by Lady Gaga at the embassy is particularly awful) and confirms every terrible thing we’ve feared about internet privacy, personal security, and the lengths that governments will go to stop—or at least slow down—a man like Assange. Risk is essential viewing and easily the first must-see documentary I’ve seen this year.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.