DIRECTOR Laura Poitras made waves with the critically acclaimed 2014 documentary Citizenfour, an intimate cinema verite examination of fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In the new film Risk, Poitras turns her camera on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, himself also sheltering from prosecution in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where most of the shooting takes place.
While it’s tempting to think the two documentaries follow each other, what’s interesting is they were filmed concurrently for a time.
Risk was made over the course of six years, with Poitras filming with Julian Assange for several years before Edward Snowden reached out to her for what would become Citizenfour.
We spoke to Risk producer Yoni Gojilov about the film.
The comparison between Assange and Snowden is inevitable, but how accurate or appropriate is it really?
They’re different stories. Of course they’ve both become part of the same world, leaks, surveillance, etc., but Snowden is a source, and Assange is a publisher.
That changes everything. The roles they play in the journalistic process, the decisions they make and the risks they take are different.
Another big difference is that the United States government has a legal—though no moral—basis to go after sources like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning. But the U.S. has no such case against a publisher.
How the government responds to WikiLeaks is vital to the free press as a whole. If the government can act against a publisher because it doesn’t like the content, that sets a precedent against the entire media. The New York Times, everybody.
You altered the end of Risk to update it with the 2016 election. Do you still feel the film needed that bookend?
That's part of why so many documentaries take so much time. This one took six years because the story was constantly unfolding. It's part of the passion. It's something documentary filmmakers are constantly dealing with.
When filming started in 2011, WikiLeaks had just published massive revelations about the Iraq War. But then for most of filming, WikiLeaks was dealing with the sexual assault allegations against Assange and his legal battle against extradition to Sweden. When the film ends in 2017, they’re making global headlines again.
And the story is still unfolding. We hope it makes the film feel like both a high-drama news story but also a behind the scenes historical document that will always provide context to a figure of historical importance.
Some reviews have mentioned how paranoid Assange seems in Risk. But candidly if I had the types of forces arrayed against me as he does, I'd probably be paranoid too.
He's taking on some of the most powerful governments in the world. That scene in the woods, where he's speaking to one of his lawyers kind of reads funny, but then you realize they're talking about how the FBI just questioned someone associated with WikiLeaks. He makes incredibly powerful enemies.
Does Assange's personality really matter, though, given the big picture?
What Assange did is of historic importance. He pioneered journalistic methods that most big publishers have now learned from. And he broke major news stories, that no one else was publishing.
At the same time, he has a major ego. He can be quite abusive.
I hope that the film does a good job of keeping all these contradictions at the forefront, a kaleidoscopic portrait.
With Assange back in the news firing jabs at Hillary Clinton, what do you think of the oft-held view that Assange is selective with his leaks, i.e. happy to share damaging info about Clinton but hands-off with Trump?
To an extent it’s outside the purview of the film. But from a story point of view, it’s incredible to have Assange versus Clinton both at the beginning and end of the film.
From a journalism point of view, Assange’s publishing decisions during the U.S. election are something the film does not try to make judgments or give answers on, but instead to present them as questions for the audience like everything else.
So far, no one has provided evidence that any of the emails are fake. All the U.S. election emails WikiLeaks published are real.
But that still leaves a million questions. Who is the source? What are their motives? What should journalists do?
Right now most of the evidence indicates that Russia provided the emails to Wikileaks. But Assange denies his source is a state actor. If he got it through WikiLeaks anonymous encrypted submission system, he may not know.
The New York Times executive editor had an interesting response, which was that if they had received the leaks, they would absolutely have published the newsworthy parts, but they would also investigate who the source was.
And that distinction about newsworthiness is important. While none of the emails were fake, many were not newsworthy.
That brings us full circle to the irony of Assange maintaining that he’s acting globally—much like the forces of globalism he says he opposes.
One way of looking at it is an ironic twist on critiques that security experts make of state intelligence agencies that try to "collect it all." Surveillance is a needle in a haystack problem. Maximum indiscriminate surveillance makes the haystack bigger. When WikiLeaks publishes tens of thousands of non-newsworthy emails, they're publishing a haystack, and that makes the newsworthy needles harder to find.