Risk is a prequel of sorts to Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ 2014 film about Edward Snowden, and sees the director exploring the life of Julian Assange in the period before and during his ‘imprisonment’ in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Assange goes to great pains to point out in Risk that he isn’t interested in martyrs, and that he shouldn’t be the story – including comments during a rather hilarious interview conducted by Lady Gaga about how his character is not what matters – but this has for so long been the irony of the Julian Assange story. Assange is a controversial figure, who is inescapably linked to WikiLeaks, and also someone who you can’t help but think not only loves attention, but actively courts it.
There are even a few moments in Risk in which Assange makes a point of encouraging Poitras to film something in particular to further his mystique, whether it’s while he is donning a disguise to escape to the Ecuadorian Embassy – Poitras thrillingly managed to attach a camera to his motorbike helmet as he made his way there – or when he is talking to a legal representative whilst hiding in some bushes. The latter moment sees Assange suggesting that Poitras should go and look around as he seems to believe that someone could be watching or listening. There’s no evidence of this, but you can’t help but think that Assange wishes there was.
Poitras is clearly sympathetic to the WikiLeaks cause – the details of which get enough coverage as to provide an overview without revealing too much new – and shoots the WikiLeaks crew and Assange like they are in a high-tech spy thriller at times. Assange, Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelaum all rather naturally fit into roles that would befit this genre.
Considering the difficult situation in which Poitras found herself making this documentary – given the legal issues and the direction Assange’s legal problems have taken him – it’s extraordinary that she managed to shoot the film in as expressive and interesting manner as she did, frequently finding interesting framing and imbuing meaning into the events that we are seeing through visual choices.
Accusations about sexual assault by Assange do not go unmentioned in Risk, cropping up frequently and leading to a couple of moments in which Assange discusses them in a manner that will leave many struggling to find any empathy for him, even if they support what he does. Poitras never gets too caught up in the scandal of the story or Assange’s celebrity though, and the film’s strongest scenes are probably actually those involving Appelbaum, who is a fiercely intelligent security consultant.
Appelbaum is like a dog with a bone when he starts looking into what he perceives as wrongdoing within the tech industry. One particularly amusing sequence sees Appelbaum calling Apple to inform them that a company is essentially bragging about how they are using a phishing scam surrounding an Apple update in order to get a backdoor into people’s computers.
Perhaps lacking some of the rigour in the final construction that Poitras’ Citizenfour displayed, Risk is nonetheless a fascinating document and one that asks a great deal of important questions.