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2017

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2017-08-27

Risk [2016] by Laura Poitras

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras started filming the inner-circle of Wikileaks in 2010 when they first burst into the headlines. She filmed them on and off for the next six years. She was originally sympathetic to their commitment to releasing controversial governmental documents that offer difficult insights into the inner-workings of large and powerful institutions. However, she became quite intimately involved with the group, even becoming lovers with one of them, Jacob Appelbaum, and on this human level she became personally disappointed with the group, particularly Julian Assange. As a result, she seems to have chosen to cobble together a collection of unconnected moments from over the years of Julian Assange not living up to his heroic reputation, rather than telling a coherent story of this critical period in the history of Wikileaks.

Assange indeed appears in some scenes to be arrogant, paranoid, dismissive and possibly even sexist, but if these were the most revealing moments she shot in six years, it doesn't reveal much. I think most people would be horrified if someone had filmed them for six years and then simply cut together the moments when they were most revealing of the least savoury parts of their personality. I'm not sure I would come off well given the same treatment, though most people consider me a nice person.

Poitras has already displayed her ability to convey the urgency of a historic moment from the inside in her documentary Citizenfour [2014], in which she recorded the moment that Edward Snowden conscientiously released documents revealing the NSA's illegal surveillance of large numbers of people in collaboration with other intelligence agencies around the world. So her inability to edit her footage into anything coherent or interesting when the group involved is extremely interesting and her access was total, is surely a result of her conflicts of interest.

Although Assange's dismissal of the two women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him borders on sexism, the film itself has also been criticised for marginalising the women centrally involved in the running of Wikileaks in favour of more screen-time for Assange and Appelbaum.

The story of Wikileaks and the flawed personality of Assange have already been effectively communicated in Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks [2013] and Risk does not offer any deeper insight, despite intimate access and being three years more up-to-date. 

A documentary carefully examining the precarious line between performing a valuable, dangerous and always ethically ambiguous role in institutional transparency, and attempting to remain humble, respectful and balanced in the process would be a very interesting film to watch. Sadly, this confused and superfluous documentary is not it.

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