When US director Laura Poitras, the 2015 Oscar winner for her Edward Snowden documentary, Citizenfour, unveiled Risk, about WikiLeaks Julian Assange to the press at the Cannes Festival, it was unsure who would be there for the Q and A. The film had been kept under wraps and indeed it was a risk for anyone to attend.
While the Australian WikiLeaks founder wasn’t about to get past the police outside London’s Ecuadorian Embassy and make it to the Côte d’Azur, it was overwhelming to watch the British exiled section editor Sarah Harrison (and sometime Assange girlfriend) and hacker and technology expert, the American Jacob Applebaum emerge onto the stage, to a resounding standing ovation. If the pair, who dominate the film with Assange, were to return to their respective countries, both would be arrested.
The film may be one-sided, yet Poitras, an admitted WikiLeaks supporter, makes no apology. The unlimited access she was afforded over the past five years into the organisation (think Alex Gibney and Lance Armstrong) proves illuminating.
Divided into 10 sections and told chronologically, the film’s highlights include Poitras filming Assange with his Australian mother as she helps him with a disguise – a leather jacket, dyed hair, coloured contacts and dark sunglasses – and as he receives support from Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam.
“The Australian government wants to stay under the radar though knows what’s going on,” Ludlam said at the time of sexual assault allegations in Sweden.
We also see Assange boxing with a trainer to try to keep fit in his tiny living and work space, and in one of the film’s liveliest scenes he is interviewed by Lady Gaga. After she comes to realise that Assange is being sought by at least 12 government agencies including the FBI and CIA the pop diva quips that’s “A lot of f***ing people.”
Q AND A
Jacob Appelbaum: First of all we’d like to read a statement.
Sarah Harrison: Julian Assange, the subject of this film, cannot be here today. He is detained without charge. He is in an embassy surrounded by police. He has been held in the United Kingdom for the last five and a half years. Julian hasn’t seen the sun for four years. The UK continues to deny him medical treatment. On 5th Feb, the UN condemned the UK and Sweden for illegally detaining him and ordered his immediate release. He has not yet been released.
JA: The espionage case against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is the largest government case against a publisher in the history of the United States. Julian’s alleged co-conspirator, the young soldier Chelsea Manning, has been sentenced to decades in military prison. Despite the fact that Julian has already been found to be innocent in Sweden, an abusive baseless and politicised investigation remains formally open. Julian Assange remains a political prisoner who sought and achieved asylum. He remains the editor of WikiLeaks and his courage endures. May 28 will mark the 2000th day of his unlawful deprivation of liberty. His illegal detention and political persecution must end.
SH: For more information please see justiceforassange.com. Free Julian.
Q to Jacob Appelbaum: How long you worked for Julian and have you been able to return to the US?
JA: I have not been to the United States for over three years on advice from my lawyers. It was acknowledged that by 2013, the FBI file for the case had already reached over 42,000 pages, of which only 9,000 pages related to the case against Manning. My friends and family members have been harassed, in some cases dragged in front of a grand jury, asked to become informants and threatened. I’ve had so many encounters with the US government including in Europe, where they would come and try to encourage me to set foot on US Embassy soil. So no I haven’t been home. I live in free Europe instead.
Q to Laura Poitras: I’ve read that you were not on great terms with Assange while making the film.
LP: I’m actually curious regarding your sources. I’m very supportive of the work that WikiLeaks does. When I first started reporting on Edward Snowden’s documents, one of the first things the mainstream media did was this comparison model. The mainstream media tries to separate people. What Edward Snowden did came after Chelsea Manning. It’s not about comparing the two.
JB: All of the time that I worked with Laura in Berlin in the last three years, I was directly supported by WikiLeaks and by Julian with his understanding. The most important thing is to get the news and facts out and the fact is Julian is a political prisoner who has been demonised by the press. If we’re talking about it as a split, it’s about journalists who are working to reveal information and journalists who are propagandists. In the US, most journalists are propagandists and stenographers for the state.
Q to LP: While making Citizenfour and this film, you were on the US watch list and were detained each time you crossed the US border. What was the risk of making the film?
LP: I was put on a US government terror response list in 2006 after I made a film about the Iraq War (My Country, My Country). That was long before I started filming with Edward Snowden or WikiLeaks. An audio recording from the FBI that was leaked to me in 2016 suggests the US government still considers me to be an anti-US filmmaker. So I think it’s ongoing. I have recently been filing a lawsuit against the US government to find out about my case and it confirms there is a secret terrorism investigation for the work that I do. The investigation into WikiLeaks and into the work that I do is secret so there’s no due process. We don’t have the information in full.
Q: Would it make any difference in the case of Mr Assange if Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump became President?
JA: I had a meeting with a senior person in the then-Secretary of State Clinton’s office at the time of Cablegate and he let me know that Clinton didn’t like Julian or myself. So I think if Hilary Clinton runs for President, he will continue to assert her political will and bitterness about the exposure of cables that document crimes. It’s very clear to me since the President as we know from Citizenfour is directly in charge of many things. This is a very scary prospect, especially when you consider the amount of pressure that has been put on the United Kingdom and Sweden and on other countries. I don't really have an idea of the other presidential candidates, but I don't think they have any ideas either.
Q: Is Lady Gaga included to add a lighter moment to the movie?
LP: You’re right that there is something light about it, but she’s able to offer insight regarding what she brings forward. When she describes the number of agencies involved, I think that's accurate. I think it’s a tremendous moment in the film.
SH: As much as the Lady Gaga scene shows the level and breadth of support that Julian does have through his visitors at the Embassy, it is a very serious issue that he is still in there unlawfully and with no sun. I think you can see that scene at the end where he’s by the window, how he really is enclosed in a very small space and has been as such unlawfully for four years.