How Julian Assange Became a Movie at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

Julian Assange is a character. He is also a very important and very real person. He’s a revolutionary publisher of classified information, for starters, a perilous occupation that has had a tangible impact on the politics of many nations. But he is also an icon, an image inflected by all of the heroic and villainous aspects that have been assigned to him. This has never seemed more true than at his appearance at the 19th Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. He spoke for well over an hour and a half to a crowd of gathered journalists, filmmakers and enthusiastic students, answering their questions with wit and rhetorical fire.

Due to his confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he appeared via Skype. This meant that he was projected onto an enormous screen in a theater, the festival’s largest. His gigantic head, lit attractively in what must be a makeshift studio in his increasingly less temporary lodging, looked down on the crowd like something out of a heavy-handed Orwell adaptation. Or, rather, like an angel in a futuristic church, blessed by the odd shimmer of what might have been a halo. In this room, for the duration of his talk, Assange was a work of cinema.

Granted, the controversial Australian has been given the cinematic treatment before. Alex Gibney, notably, turned him into the subject of an entire feature-length documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. He has also been profiled by Laura Poitras, though her film will not be available until its online debut in 2016. Yet this live experience felt different, in part because the publisher’s entire relationship to the world is now mediated by screens. He is both extremely present online and entirely physically absent from public discourse. He can be seen, but only in a single location. While other documentary subjects are granted some freedom of movement after their release from the cinema, both physically and professionally, Assange exists only in media space.

This seemed especially obvious in the context of Jihlava’s profile as a politically aware documentary festival. It’s true that the festival brings in a number of political figures from outside the film world, activists whose appearances aren’t necessarily directly tied to the nonfiction cinema community. This year’s agenda featured events with Masha Alyokhina of Pussy Riot and Osama Abdul Mohsen, a Syrian Refugee who gained international attention after he was tripped by a Hungarian journalist. Yet elements in some of the festival’s films seemed to have more in common with the Assange appearance than any in-person conversation could.

Under the Sun, Vitaly Mansky’s film about the making of a propaganda film in North Korea, raises issues of surveillance and the constant presence of political power in the lives of its subjects. It’s hard not to draw connections with Assange’s own observations as to the omnipresent surveillance operation afflicting his own life. The central image of his face, meanwhile, evokes another film in the festival with an interest in close-ups: Ivan Ostrochovsky’s Koza, a docufiction about Slovak Olympic boxer Peter Baláž. The athlete’s face is the greatest nonfiction evidence of his brutal experience, presenting real pain within the bounds of a fictional narrative. The tripartite narrative of James Hong’s Terra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist, which approaches the contested Senkaku Islands from all three nations that claim them, underlines Assange’s point that journalism needs to become multinational in order for its integrity to surviveÿ

Assange also veered off into a few much stranger intellectual places, evoking the grand theories of the weirder corners of the documentary landscape. His take on the Islamic State, for instance, is that its leaders are enacting little more than the terror that has accompanied the creation of every state in the world. His is a unified, global reading of violence. His tone is calm but assured, practiced and cold. It came across as little more than a step away from the Zeitgeist series, or other ostensibly nonfiction films that build the case for recognizing the vast conspiracies of history.

Granted, without the immersion of the documentary festival context, some of these comparisons likely seem oblique. But in a space brimming with examinations of character and truth, it’s hard not to see the abstraction of identity even in the most forceful of images and personas. And, in a sense, this is entirely the point of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.

The shared space of political figures and artistic film can inspire any number of revelations. Alyokhina, after all, was also a subject of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Abdul Mohsen became an important figure in the movement to support refugees to Europe after a video was posted on Twitter. Assange’s public persona may be the most exclusively mediated by the nonfiction cinematic image, but he’s hardly the only activist perceived in a similar way. And perhaps the most effective place to ponder these increasingly complicated abstractions of character and fame is in the documentary space, using the context of nonfiction cinema to wrap our heads around images that arrive without the packaging of a feature film.

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Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.