CANNES, France — After earning an Oscar for her coverage of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, filmmaker Laura Poitras is back with a documentary on Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
“Risk” made waves when it premiered on May 19 at the Cannes Film Festival, a festival known for building buzz around important upcoming movies.
Even more than the film itself, a post-screening Q&A session is bringing new attention to Assange’s plight. During the session, Poitras was joined by two people who appear in “Risk” — Jacob Appelbaum, an independent journalist and hacktivist, who once served as a WikiLeaks spokesperson, and Sarah Harrison, a journalist and WikiLeaks editor.
Applebaum and Harrison joined Poitras in calling for Assange’s freedom from captivity.
“The fact is, Julian is a political prisoner who is being demonized in the press and who is about to spend a very serious number of thousands of days imprisoned by the U.K., who does not listen the United Nations’ rulings,” Appelbaum said, according to a report by Graham Winfrey for IndieWire.
Since 2012, when he was granted asylum, Assange has lived continuously in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, unable to leave for fear of arrest and extradition to the United States. That threat continues to loom over his head, despite a February ruling by a United Nations panel declaring that he was being held under “arbitrary detention” and should be released.
Shot over a five-year period, “Risk” shows Assange’s life in under asylum, as well as his previous work under less confined circumstances. The Telegraph noted that Poitras was granted intimate access to Assange’s work throughout. The news organization’s film critic, Robbie Collin, wrote:
“Rather than picking over the content of Assange’s work itself, Poitras wants to show us him at work, and her film takes us right into the nerve centre of the WikiLeaks operation. He fields telephone calls – all taped, of course, with Assange clutching his dictaphone like a rosary – taps away at his laptop, and chairs meetings with his editorial staff and other acolytes.”
The documentary opens with a dramatic sequence of Assange donning a disguise, later revealed to be part of his precautions for sneaking into the embassy in 2012.
“‘Risk’ opens with a scene of Julian Assange going undercover. Poitras observes him applying colored contacts as the finishing touch to a disguise that involves dyed orange hair, tough-guy goatee and faux ear gauges, which gives the impression that we’re watching a genuine spy movie — and in a sense we are,” Variety’s Peter Debruge reported.
In one scene, Assange attempts to warn Apple Computers that its iTunes software could be used by surveillance agencies as a backdoor to access computers. Although he made these warnings in 2011, it’s unclear if Apple ever addressed the issue.
Later, the WikiLeaks founder is briefly interviewed by celebrity musician and actress Lady Gaga, who records his answers to questions like “What’s your favorite food?” on her smartphone.
“Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person,” Assange replies, according to Jada Yuan, writing for culture blog Vulture.
Filmmaking for “Risk” was already underway in 2013, when Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald were contacted by Snowden and traveled to meet with him in hiding at a Hong Kong hotel, where he revealed documents proving that the NSA routinely monitors millions of people, including American citizens and world leaders. She turned that story into the documentary “Citizenfour,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2015.
During the Q&A at Cannes, Poitras, who openly supports Assange and whistleblowers like Snowden, revealed that she too has faced U.S. government persecution for her work. According to IndieWire, she said the U.S. government declared her an “anti-U.S.” filmmaker after the release of her 2006 documentary about the Iraq War, “My Country, My Country.”
“Recently I’ve been filing a lawsuit against the government to find out about my case, and it confirms that there was a secret investigation for terrorism for the work that I do,” she said, adding: “As far as I know, it’s ongoing.”
Watch “Lady Gaga’s Date With Julian Assange” from Wochit Entertainment:
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