I get frustrated with those on the left – and I am on the left myself – who treat Julian Assange as some kind of anti-establishment hero, and as someone who’s somehow beyond criticism because of his imprisonment and ‘martyrdom’. We can believe in the principles of WikiLeaks, as I do, and believe in holding governments to account with absolute freedom of information, without elevating the organisation’s founders to Godlike (or at least, for radicals, Guevaralike) levels of irreproachability.
Risk comes as a vindication for those of us who have long mistrusted Julian Assange and his well-documented fascistic and sexist tendencies. Because, simply, they’ve never been so well-documented as they are here. Director Laura Poitras was granted unprecedented access to WikiLeak’s inner circle in her filming, and closely follows the team from the early days of enormous data leaks, through Chelsea Manning’s shocking arrest and 35-year prison sentence (of course she’s now freed), and Assange’s fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy where he is still shacked up. It would appear to be a tale of courage under adversity then, and that’s what Poitras initially set out to film. However, it becomes a much darker beast when Assange’s hostility and bullying nature starts to become self-evident both on and off camera. Laura eventually acknowledges around the half-way point that: ‘I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.’
The heart of WikiLeaks turns out to be a heart of darkness: Assange, as we know, was wanted for questioning in Sweden over four counts of sexual molestation, including the rape of two women. Although Sweden have since dropped its investigation, the allegations of the two women stand, and it doesn’t take much reading around to work out that these allegations are not fabricated by the US government, as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Here are some revealing words, for instance, by James Ball (in a must-read article), who worked with Assange at WikiLeaks for a short time:
The details of what happened over those few days remain a matter for the Swedish justice system, not speculation, but having seen and heard Assange and those around him discuss the case, having read out the court documents, and having followed the extradition case in the UK all the way to the supreme court, I know it is a real, complicated sexual assault and rape case. It is no CIA smear, and it relates to Assange’s role at WikiLeaks only in that his work there is how they met.
I can’t, and won’t, speculate on the truth of the rape allegations either. However, one appalling moment in Risk demonstrates Assange’s misogyny in full bloom, and unequivocally on display: Assange responds to a female lawyer’s request for more conciliatory language towards his accusers by informing her that it’s all a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’ against him by women who run a ‘lesbian nightclub’. And then later, he tells Poitras in an interview that if the case ever reaches the courts, these women would ‘be reviled forever by a large segment of the population’. His victim-shaming starts to look like a Trump-level of egomaniacal delusion. Which is why, with breathtaking hypocrisy, considering what WikiLeaks represents, Assange apparently called his lawyers to demand these scenes were removed from the film and furiously texted Poitras that it was a ‘threat to his freedom’.
There are other uncomfortable truths that the film wisely covers in detail. For example, there’s the sexual abuse allegations made against another WikiLeaks operative, Jacob Applebaum, with whom it transpires Poitras once had a short affair before he abused one of her friends. Then there’s the 2016 Hillary Clinton email leaks scandal, in which Assange played a huge role, yet still denies collusion with Russia. Nobody could rationally blame the leaks for her election loss – it was likely more to do with a lacklustre campaign and already tarnished political reputation – however it does still smack of a personal vendetta against Clinton that’s disturbing. Where were the Trump leaks?
A portrait builds up of abuse of power amongst the founders of WikiLeaks that is deeply unsettling, and a far cry from the more straightforward heroism portrayed in Poitras’ award-winning Citizenfour, which was about the plight of the genuinely decent Edward Snowden. Yet though Snowden’s the better person, Risk is the better film, I think, because its moral haziness accrues ambiguities and causes all of us, and Poitras, to think hard about the efficacy of unaccountable organisations such as WikiLeaks, and not just unaccountable governments.