May 8, 2017
in theaters

'Risk': Laura Poitras on Making the Controversial Movie of the Year

Laura Poitras acted 'like an intelligence agent' to film a documentary about WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

Laura Poitras’ latest documentary is not the film she intended to make. In spite of mounting ethical dilemmas, Poitras persevered with Risk, a chilling and nuanced portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose efforts to uphold the ideals of democracy have been shadowed by claims of sexual misconduct.

Poitras set out with the intention of making a documentary about WikiLeaks, an organization that regularly publishes classified documents from government institutions in order to expose infringements on freedom and democracy. One of WikiLeaks' most notorious sources was the disillusioned and idealistic National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, also the subject of Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary-cum-paranoia thriller CITIZENFOUR

What makes Risk, Poitras’ follow-up film to CITIZENFOUR, such a thought-provoking documentary experience is the window that she affords us into its production. When multiple allegations of rape and unlawful coercion were brought forth against Assange and WikiLeaks journalist Jacob Appelbaum, Poitras was forced to reassess her original intentions for the film. Ultimately, she determined that she couldn’t proceed with Risk—a film six years in the making—without addressing the allegations and subsequent contradictions that they posed. Her production journal plays throughout the film as a voiceover, offering insight into the way in which she grappled with these ethical dilemmas. 

"This is not the film I thought I was making. The hardest dilemma was the decision I had to make after the screening at Cannes. I had two choices: either walk away from the film and not release it or to address the [rape] allegations."

Risk is as much a portrait of Assange as it is of Poitras, revealing the unique strands that connect documentarian with subject—the most striking of which is the great personal risk both are willing to face in order to defend a set of ideals. The lengths to which Poitras will go to protect freedom of information have not only earned her an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but also landed her on one of the U.S. government’s secret watch lists.

"I was stopped at the border again," Poitras writes in the Risk production journal. "My detentions have become more aggressive since I began filming WikiLeaks. The U.S. agent at Heathrow wouldn’t tell me his name or who he worked for. At JFK, they collected all of my electronics and asked me if I had any hidden USB drives. When I got home, my apartment door was open. Did I forget to close it? Or are they sending me a message?"

Poitras juxtaposes this voiceover with an intertitle that reveals that Assange and the WikiLeaks staff are under secret U.S. grand jury investigation for espionage and conspiracy, which barely sums up the sacrifices Assange has made for what he sees as political gain. 

Yet similarities are also mired with contradictions. The deeply disturbing uncensored attitudes Assange expresses towards women are an affront to Poitras’ identity and the veracity of her voice as a storyteller. But in spite of the vulnerability both documentarian and subject show throughout the film—and in spite of their commitment to radical transparency—both Poitras and Assange remain opaque to the viewer. Granted Poitras’ unprecedented access and the six-year span she had to develop an intimate relationship with her subject, Poitras’ capacity to remain ambivalent, resisting the urge to reach some conclusive character judgment on Assange, is at once frustrating and understandable. 

No Film School sat down with Poitras to discuss the contradictions that plagued her film, and WikiLeaks and journalism in the age of surveillance, censorship, and Trump. 

"I’m not trying to make a hit job, but I’m not trying to pull punches, either."

No Film School: Throughout the film, I was troubled by some of Julian Assange’s behavior toward women. I found certain comments he made to be disturbingly misogynistic and objectionable. Early on we learn that sexual assault allegations have been made by two women against Assange, two of the possible counts being unlawful coercion and rape. At one point in the film, Assange refers to the case as a "thoroughly tawdry radical feminist thing." But while these moments infuriated me, Risk is a measured character study. How did you parse out these contradictions while making the film?

Laura Poitras: I think it’s kind of like the way people process all encounters, right? You have conflicting reactions. There might be things that you really like about people and things you really dislike, and there might be some things that are deeply offensive and some things that are not tolerable. There’s that whole spectrum of ways in which we navigate those kinds of interactions and the questions they bring up. 

With Risk, I’m not trying to make a hit job, but I’m not trying to pull punches, either. Those comments are Julian’s own words and I couldn’t justify not including them. They show an attitude that I find is disturbing. I don’t want to forgive… I couldn’t censor from the film or Julian’s own words. I just couldn’t do that.

Credit: Laura Poitras

Poitras: At the same time, in terms of the allegations, we have to keep reminding people that no charges have been brought. Due process is necessary and until then, I don’t think we can or should reach conclusions. This legal process has been very politicized.

I also wanted the film to include the respect I have for a lot of the work that he does and for his ideas, his brilliance, and his ability to put his life on the line for a set of ideals. When watching the film, I want people to ask themselves, “Who else is making these choices that have such profound consequences in terms of life and liberty?”

So these realities have to coexist: what he says is disturbing in terms of attitudes, but they don’t undo the fact that there have been no charges filed and that he deserves absolute due process. It’s a complicated needle to thread. I could have censored his words or done a hit job, but then it would be a less complex portrayal, and I wanted to do something nuanced. It’s a complicated time to try and make a nuanced film that deals with gender, allegations of abuse, and political outcomes. We’re not living in a time of the most nuanced media landscape. 

"I was acting sort of like an intelligence agent."

NFS: Is there an overlap between WikiLeaks’ publishing of secure materials and the reporting you do in your films? 

Poitras: There’s a kind of methodology that the Wikileaks team taught me and that I started using as I reported on these stories. So when I started filming Snowden for CITIZENFOUR, I was acting sort of like an intelligence agent. I was using code names and compartmentalization and all those things that spies do to protect their information.

In this age of surveillance, I think that journalists have been forced to engage in certain practices in order to protect their sources or protect their information—as a spy would do—as basic security protocol. 

NFS: Considering this overlap, then, what did you make of CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent statement that WikiLeaks is a “hostile intelligence service?”

Poitras: What Pompeo said recently attacking Wikileaks is really serious and really, deeply chilling—not just towards WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, but towards the press more broadly. Let’s face it: the Trump administration ran on a platform to target the press. 

Julian Assange in 'Risk'Credit: Praxis Films

NFS: Pompeo’s statement felt broad and immediate to me while I watched Risk, particularly when you show footage of FBI agents naming you as a person of interest. 

Poitras: Even still, there are risks I’m not willing to take. I have the freedom of movement... currently. 

"Watching the film, I want people to ask themselves, 'Who else is making these choices that have such profound consequences in terms of life and liberty?'"

NFS: What should filmmakers or journalists be asking themselves as they navigate the current media landscape?

Poitras: It’s important to interrogate the power that you occupy. I think that’s the only way you can consider other people’s positions. Some people have more power and some people have less power in terms of their vulnerability.

For example, it is disturbing and terrifying to me that Trump was elected after his declaration around predatory behavior and his unabashed racism, but then you have to interrogate why Trump doesn’t get challenged. We have to ask ourselves why the beliefs he’s conveyed are just something that is acceptable to American voters. Or, in a broader context, how is his behavior something we’ve decided is excusable? Which is not to show any sympathy for Hillary Clinton, because I have none. But Trump is something uniquely horrifying. There are so many communities that are now under threat, under attack. And we need to ask ourselves why these attitudes have been made acceptable. 

NFS: While watching your film and the body language and gestures you capture, I thought about the impact this risk-taking has on the lives of Assange, Snowden, Appelbaum. Their anxiety levels must be so high, seeing as their lives are consistently placed on the line. 

Poitras: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah… that’s exactly right. I know the feeling. I tried to capture that sense of claustrophobia in the film. Also, the physical toll. I find it remarkable that in such a small space, Julian Assange is still angering the most powerful government in the world. He still manages to do things that are confrontational. He continues to refuse to back down. Assange has taken extraordinary personal risks for the sake of justice and security. I think it’s admirable.      

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