DIR/WRI: Laura Poitras • PRO: Brenda Coughlin, Yoni Golijov, Laura Poitras • DOP: Kirsten Johnson, Laura Poitras, Katy Scoggin • ED: Erin Casper, Melody London, Laura Poitras • MUS: Jeremy Flower • CAST: Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Appelbaum
It’s fascinating how much the world has changed in a few short years. In an era of Brexit and the Trump administration, not only has does the dilemma of extreme government surveillance seem like a relic from long ago, but global attention on privacy infringement has diminished as well. In this regard, leave it to a documentarist like Laura Poitras to renew those fears back into the mind once more. Accompanied with the dark conspiratorial style that has become a Showtime productions signature, Risk distinguishes itself as an unnerving and elucidating post-mortem on one of the biggest scandals of the decade.
Admittedly, as the documentary begins, it’s easy to forgive any misgivings viewers might have regarding its subject. In Poitras’s recorded production notes, she admits “this is not the film I thought I was making” and the early footage reflects this. Beginning in 2011, Risk starts as quite an unfocussed overview of Wikileaks and its members at the time, struggling to mesh what the documentary began as with what we eventually see on the screen. For anyone requiring an account on Wikileaks, We Steal Secrets remains the definitive text on the subject.
However, what distinguishes Poitras’ account is its remarkable insider experience as each development unfolds right up to earlier this year. Its connections to 2014’s Citizenfour are more than narrative, as it shares the earlier documentary’s sense of heavy paranoia. What made Edward Snowden’s story incredible was the intense immersion given by Poitras into the NSA scandal as it was planned for release. Risk offers the same experience but is more reflective in tone. It bleakly offers insight into the aftermath of an act of dissidence, and how easily a group like Wikileaks can crumble from government pressure. It’s easy to almost forget what the dilemma actually was when all attention was given to Assange and Snowden rather than the documents released.
That isn’t to suggest Poitras’ subjects are guiltless in their acts, as she gives startling views of both Assange and Jacob Appelbaum, Wikileak’s other significant former member. While his tone is facetious, when Assange is asked about the rape allegations, he remarks half-sincerely that he should have such accusations recur every six months as it is good for public attention. Likewise Poitras gives both a personal account and other’s experiences on Appelbaum’s history of abuse and sexual harassment. While Appelbaum’s and Assange’s stories are inexorably linked with the document leaks, Risk makes it explicitly clear that the men responsible shouldn’t be valorized, even if their cause for exposing government abuse of power is an honourable one.
Risk focuses on a difficult subject to engage with, but helps reignite the conversation that should be had on how much governmental control is simply too much. Poitras finds fresh ground to cover, bringing the important stories of the past back into the present spotlight where it’s as important as ever to discuss. Personally speaking, Risk is the kind of documentary to make becoming a hermit an increasingly tantalizing possibility.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Risk is released 30th June 2017