Risk is an unsparing portrait documenting the life of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Like Citizenfour, director Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden, Risk is a similarly intimate portrayal of Assange. With Poitras’ subtle behind-the-scenes filming, we get to witness the workings of of international activists seeking to expose secrets, and in doing so we gain insight into the paranoia that comes with the territory. Shooting with small cameras in secretive spaces, and offering a thoughtful commentary by Poitras, who questions the trust Assange seems to offer her, this is an accomplished piece of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.
What it reveals about Assange is not particularly complimentary. Though Wikileaks is viewed through a mostly positive lens, which will certainly please information hacktivists and freedom-of-the-press advocates, its association with Assange is tainted; it seems that Wikileaks’ principles and progressive digital activism become weakened with Assange continuing to lead the organisation.
When Assange is not sounding like an arrogant egomaniac, which he does for the majority of the film, he comes across as incredibly lazy and self-centred. All around him, people make food, coffee, and clear plates, and not once does he lift a finger. He’s always seated, being served; he never offers to assist. You’d think that given he was being filmed all the time, he’d want to present a positive image, but he doesn’t seem to care. In Assange’s world, he is too important to do menial things like cooking and cleaning; when there are numerous women around to take care of the household chores, then why should king Assange who’s fighting for freedom of information get up from his comfy hacktavist throne.
This sexism often presents itself as misogyny; Assange's views on women paint him in a very ugly light. In a particularly audacious scene, Assange describes the sexual assault accusations made against him by two Swedish women as “tawdry rad fem political positioning”. Helena Kennedy QC, who’s attempting to advise Assange, delicately tries to convince him that he would have more support, and success in court, if he talked sympathetically about the women involved, and appeared less "hostile", but her guidance falls on deaf ears. Assange suggests one of the alleged female victims’ testimony is unreliable, because she “started the lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg”, and Kennedy falls silent, but she clearly is horrified - as was everyone watching the preview alongside me in the cinema: there were audible gasps when he said that.
It’s hard to distance Assange the man, from Wikileaks the organisation, when his behaviour is so appalling. When he’s warned by a colleague that Wikileaks has become “toxic” in Sweden, and that they think him taking a conciliatory tone with the women involved would benefit the organisation greatly, Assange laughs and then argues that it’s his life that’s been most affected. With a smile on his face, he suggests the women should drop the court case because they will be "reviled" by a large percentage of Wikileaks’ followers. Assange seems happy to throw people, as well as Wikileaks, under the bus.
Interestingly, Assange has threatened Poitras with legal action based on her including these comments about women in the documentary and it’s also made clear that Assange felt betrayed by Poitras for not sharing with him that she was in contact with Edward Snowden (which resulted in her CitizenFour film, which was shot during the same time period). The lack of trust goes both ways: Poitras herself concludes that Assange has had a role in the victory of Trump winning the USA Presidential elections. American intelligence officials accused Assange of publishing material stolen from computers of Democratic groups by Russian operatives, and that this tipped the 2016 election in President Trump’s favor. “I accept that it was a Russian hack and that they used a cutout or an intermediary to submit it,” Poitras has said. “Julian says his source is not a state actor. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Risk is a largely sympathetic portrayal of an activist man who’s martyred for the cause, but Poitras critically looks beyond this, at the detail. It’s these intimate insights into Assange which allows the audience to see beyond the information freedom fighter, and to doubt his claim to non-partisanship. It’s not an easy film to watch, because clearly Assange is an unlikeable character, but Poitras’ skill makes for a captivating story.