The film has become a severe threat to my freedom, and I’m forced to treat it accordingly,” wrote WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a message to Oscar-winning documentary maker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) that she reads in voice-over near the end of Risk. The movie chronicles her increasingly tangled six-year professional relationship with Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London since June 2012, fighting extradition to Sweden on rape charges, and now faces the renewed efforts of the U.S. Justice Department to arrest him for espionage. Risk lacks the hurtling momentum of Citizenfour, which records Edward Snowden leaking classified information about U.S. surveillance to her and other journalists in 2013; here there’s a sense of Poitras cleaning out her closet. But her closet is full of unguarded remarks from one of the most notorious men on earth, so who cares?
Risk opens with a tense scene, shot in November 2011, in which Assange places a call to the U.S. State Department to inform officials that the diplomatic cables previously published by WikiLeaks in redacted form have now leaked in their original form online. “I can’t believe what Julian is allowing me to film,” Poitras notes, and you might be inclined to agree with her right around the time Assange disguises himself with dyed hair and colored contact lenses, slips out of a private home where he’s under house arrest, and roars across town on a motorcycle to his new asylum at the embassy. Risk also captures Assange resisting the advice of counselors to issue a conciliatory statement to his female accusers back in Sweden and dismissing the allegations against him as “a media/feminist political positioning thing.”
With the Snowden and Assange films, Poitras is truly reporting from the cusp of history, but such proximity to one’s subject can be disorienting. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” she confesses. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story.” She might be referring to the role WikiLeaks played in swinging the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump by publishing embarrassing documents procured by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee. Or she might be referring to her own intimate relationship, which she has broken off and discloses in the film, with Jacob Appelbaum, a computer-security expert and activist appearing in Risk who resigned from the nonprofit Tor Project last June amid allegations of sexual and emotional abuse. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but what happens when the drafter gets pulled into the history? v