Before Citizenfour even came into being, Laura Poitras was given unprecedented access to WikiLeaks, an organisation that appears to have only one face, despite the network of helpers who help sustain the group right across the globe. That one person is of course, Julian Assange, a man whose actions and mere presence (albeit behind closed Embassy doors) divides people more than ever before. To some, he is a God-like figure, seeking out the truth to expose a corrupt neoliberal world, while for others, he is a narcissistic misogynist with a number of dubious allegations that refuse to go away.
When Poitras began work on Risk back in 2010, she couldn’t have foreseen just how many world shaping events her film would capture. Aside from the sexual assault charges and the obvious change in Assange’s circumstances, Chelsea Manning is convicted and sent to prison, Snowden reveals the NSA leaks and the Comey/Russian saga hits the fan. What Poitras must’ve been aware of was just how much of her own freedom and sanity she was about to give up by getting so close to Assange. As the FBI keep close tabs on her movements, airport checks become far tighter and she returns home to find her apartment door has been opened.
This makes the film feel much more personal, complicated further by the fallout with Assange as filming progressed and cemented once he viewed the final cut and asked for scenes to be deleted. Poitras also admits to a romantic involvement with WikiLeak operative Jacob Applebaum, who has similarly faced sexual abuse allegations during his time at the Tor Project. Poitras’ voiceover occasionally offers some of her own thoughts on events, believing that Assange doesn’t like her, before she has even found her feet in the project. It is to her credit then that the film remains even handed and not skewed by the many facets of her own involvement.
If her instinct is correct, it begs the question why Assange asked Poitras to step inside his world. An early scene watching Assange on the phone attempting to reach Hilary Clinton at The Pentagon answers that question. While he may have mastered the art of the disappearing act, what Assange cannot hide is an over-sized ego that has developed as a result of the attention he has attracted over the past decade. Lady Gaga is one of the many celebrities that have rolled through the Ecuadorian Embassy doors over the years and hearing his patronising answers during their awkward interview makes for painful viewing.
Drenched in intense paranoia, much of which feels wholly justified, there are times when Risk plays like a genuine spy conspiracy thriller. Letters are burnt, hotel rooms wiped down (aided by Assange’s mother) and covert conservations held nervously in the woods. In a moment that was probably the norm before his retreat into the Embassy, Assange dyes his hair, pops in contact lenses and speeds off on a bike through the streets of London, dressed head to toe in motorbike leathers. It is as ridiculous as it is troubling, and as accustomed as Assange has become to this insane way of life, the price he has paid is immeasurable.
The access gained by Poitras is quite incredible, taking us right into the heart of a secret world populated by tech experts, lawyers and people like the ever faithful Sarah Harrison, who has remained by Assange’s side through thick and thin. Their amazing work has resulted in the release of over 10 million documents to date, exposing us to the sort of truth that many believe the legacy media are unable to provide due to their conflicting commercial interests. Although ironically, the man at the centre of the organisation has burrowed himself into a corner where he can trust no-one, thus eradicating the very idea of the truth existing at all.