The enigmatic champion of a global movement for transparency and democracy. A Russian stooge. A West-hating attention-seeker. A cold fish with questionable attitudes and alleged diabolical sexual mores.
Julian Assange has been labeled all of these – and many things besides – since starting out as a media-savvy Robin Hood figure, wrestling facts from the powerful and serving them up unexpurgated for the masses.
Now, a fugitive from justice dogged by accusations of sexual assault and living a hermetic existence in London’s Ecuadoran embassy for the last five years, he cuts a more embattled, slippery figure. “Risk,” a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, starts out as an unsettlingly ambivalent portrait of the award-winning iconoclast but ends up revealing a darker side to Assange.
Filmed over six tumultuous years and taking in the 2016 US presidential election, it takes viewers closer than any previous film crew into Assange’s inner sanctum. “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,” Poitras says in a voiceover.
US cable network Showtime announced in April it had partnered with Neon to roll out the film at 36 US locations during May, before a television premiere later in summer. WikiLeaks, founded by Assange in 2006, specializes in large-scale breaches of classified data that have made headlines around the world, as well as challenging the ethics of security services.
The 45-year-old computer programmer has claimed political asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London since 2012, having taken refuge to avoid being sent to Sweden. There is an international arrest warrant out to get him to face allegations of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape dating back to 2010.
Poitras’s profile of Assange, who denies any wrongdoing, is a follow-up to her Academy Award-winning “Citizenfour” (2014), about fugitive leaker Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of “Risk” is its success in shedding light on the ugly misogyny that runs through so much of the tech world, showing Assange describing the sexual assault allegations against him as the product of a feminist conspiracy.
He even suggests that if the alleged victims said sorry to him, he would “apologize for anything I did or didn’t do to hurt their feelings.”
“Risk” also gets up-close with security expert and close Assange ally Jacob Appelbaum, revealing that he is also facing accusations of sexual misconduct, which he too denies.
Assange doesn’t accept that he and Poitras fell out, but appears through messages she reads out on camera to become colder with her, bruised by the fact that she didn’t use WikiLeaks to publish Snowden’s NSA material. “That kind of created I think, as you see in the film, a tension between myself and Julian,” the 53-year-old said during a Q&A following the North American premiere at the Art of the Real festival in New York last week.
At its height, WikiLeaks could claim to have provided valuable insights into the war on terror, helped bring about the Arab Spring and shone a light on civilian deaths in Iraq. Regardless of Assange’s plummeting stock in the bourse of public opinion, the organization he founded remains undeniably relevant – a potent force in geopolitics.
“Risk” underlines its continued influence in the confusion surrounding Assange’s intervention in the US presidential election, and his suspected ties with Russia and with members of the Trump campaign. In July WikiLeaks published 20,000 hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, some innocuous but others hugely damaging to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
By October, WikiLeaks was publishing thousands of emails from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, prompting effusive praise from then-candidate Donald Trump.
Assange denies that Russia or any other state was behind the leak.
Despite its focus on the murky world of espionage, “Risk” does have its lighter side, including a hilarious cameo by Lady Gaga paying a visit to Assange. But had Poitras filmed for a few more months, her documentary could have had a romantic coda.
In a bizarre twist in the Assange saga, ex-Baywatch star Pamela Anderson has recently emerged as a rumored love interest of the secretive Australian, and in a poem posted on her website she complains about the “narrow lens Laura has picked.” The 49-year-old actress has reportedly visited the fugitive several times in recent months.