Intelligence Pornby Sarah Mendelsohn
The Risk released on May 5 is an edited version of a reportedly very different and less ambivalent portrait of Julian Assange that was shown at Cannes last year, and is the product of more than six years of documenting WikiLeaks. Filmmaker Laura Poitras shows us Assange working: in a prim jacket, sitting opposite WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, their faces lit by laptop screens, cell phone headsets in place.
Assange working: receiving a haircut from Jacob Appelbaum as several others from WikiLeaks’ inner circle stand by, drinking and laughing at an instructional exercise video. Harrison holds a mirror at chest-height, so that Assange can assess Appelbaum’s work and Harrison at the same time.
Assange working: putting on a leather jacket, colored contact lenses—shape shifting.
Poitras’s camera darts over shoulders, in and out of focus, roving the tight interiors of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has lived in political asylum since 2012.
Periodically throughout the film, Assange sits opposite the camera in a heightened performance of self, delivering moral aphorisms in a steady voice, mildly callous and mildly amused: the risk is that your life is just going by, and you’re wasting it—if you’re not working for the values you care about every day. In these moments, we realize that, of course, Assange is always performing. Periodically, Poitras—who does not appear on camera—narrates a series of “Production Diary” notes. In this edit of the film, Poitras’s cleanly confessional voiceover leans into its ambivalence: “This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story.”
Risk assembles pieces of meta-information as they accumulate in soft focus:
Assange is one leading, rogue voice advocating for the freedom of information in an era in which neoliberal structures of power gain a tighter and tighter grip on narrative—an era in which we feel collective apathy towards information and collective dread of narrative, and commit collective crimes of miscommunication. Assange’s antagonism towards the suppression of information cuts through the present crises in politics and journalism.
Assange is obsessed with power.
Assange is the child of artists.
Lady Gaga conducts a guest-star interview, and before beginning, instructs Assange to trade the suit for a grungy t-shirt: to look like a rebel.
Assange is misogynistic, dismissing sexual assault allegations as “a radical feminist conspiracy.”
Appelbaum has also denied allegations of sexual assault. Poitras was briefly involved with Appelbaum, who identifies as queer.
Assange’s contradictions, and the ambivalence of the film, are contradictions of access and privacy—embodying the contradictions of the internet itself. You are under surveillance, you have to show yourself, and you can never be fully present. So, you end up performing yourself. Privacy, as the kind of asylum that takes place within an expansive wardrobe, is elusive.
Documenting, responding to, and becoming embedded within Assange’s circle, Poitras cannot resolve to be fully in or out of the film, and cannot get to the end of this story. Trump had not yet been elected when Risk premiered at Cannes in 2016—pre-Podesta emails, pre-commutation of Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment. At Risk in May 2017 is my first time watching Trump’s election in a theater. The images feel suddenly already historical, familiar and cold. I feel stirred and depleted. The events of the film keep unfolding; in May 2017 the about-to-be fired F.B.I. Director James Comey calls WikiLeaks “intelligence porn.” Comey says this dismissively (“there’s nothing that even smells ‘journalistic’ about this kind of conduct”)—but maybe there’s another dimension to this phrase. Poitras’s film captures an eroticism hovering between a plugged-in inner circle and its diffuse audience, between radical action and tired power dynamics. The internet is both subject and vehicle of self and sexuality.
During the Q&A following the screening I attend at the IFC Center, someone in the second row asks for the microphone. Kate Crawford—an advisor to Risk and moderator of the Q&A with Poitras and the film’s editor, Erin Casper—explains that the microphones are corded; audience members may pose questions, which Crawford will repeat back so that everyone can hear. No, says Angry in the Second Row, I want to ask my question myself. Angry stands and starts screaming: I am sick and tired of people like Assange being attacked by people like you—this has happened too often. Assange is not a rapist. This was all a setup—echoing Assange: a feminist conspiracy!
I am impressed by how Crawford and Poitras field Angry, who is suddenly standing so close to the stage. Poitras: Assange’s misogyny does not cancel out the importance of WikiLeaks. It is increasingly important to allow both things to be true.
The filmmaker continues by reminding us that the kind of flippant, white cis male privilege exhibited by Assange is not just prevalent within the hacking community, explaining from the Q&A stage: “This isn’t just about gender. Think about any other issue. Think about race.” Poitras searches for the right words, and without necessarily finding them, maintains directness and poise. Despite that, from the back row, I feel the audience tense. We try to assess: what kind of threat is Angry? Are we all at risk?