Billed by some as a prequel to ‘Citizenfour,’ Laura Poitras’s new film has a much more complex relationship to her previous work.
In October 2012, Lady Gaga paid a visit to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. At the time, no one was entirely sure what to make of it, a publicity stunt of the strangest order. The most memorable image was a blurry photograph of the two standing together, the pop star all in black and the political lightning rod in a simple white shirt.
Now, thanks to Laura Poitras’s Risk, we know that Assange’s outfit was Lady Gaga’s idea. “Put on a dirty fucking t-shirt,” she tells him, “like a rebel.” This telling detail is probably the biggest news bombshell in the film, a fact that may disappoint a fair number of journalists. There will not be a repeat of the media frenzy around Citizenfour. But for those of us interested in the more prosaic, human revelations of Poitras’s work, this scene is fascinating. It may very well be the key to understanding the entire film, which covers a full six years in the life of Assange and Wikileaks.
For one thing, this footage of the encounter may be even more enigmatic than that vague photograph. The two celebrities never manage to establish a real rapport. Their carefully cultivated images make very little sense in the same room, each operating with the social assumptions of an entirely different sphere. It seems to throw them both off.
Assange is clearly used to framing himself against politicians and governments, officious people who oppose him with a deadly serious air of moral outrage. Lady Gaga’s broad, simple questions clearly make him uncomfortable, but it is also more than that. He is desperate to drive the conversation toward familiar territory, interrupting a train of thought to declaim, “I am not a normal person.” Obviously she knows that already, but not with his preferred connotation.
“Who is after you?” she asks. He responds by listing as many governmental institutions as he can, well beyond the NSA and CIA. On the one hand, he is determined to impress her and her many followers, an understandable enough urge. But he either can’t or won’t notice that his language of intelligence agencies isn’t landing the way he intends.
This is further complicated by the way that Poitras frames this material in the film. While funny, it serves a much more enigmatic purpose than simple comic relief. The construction of the scene is choppy, even alienating. Poitras and editors Erin Casper and Melody London never let us settle into a shot, or even a vibe. This is a noted exception in a film that is edited mostly with the same smooth, contemplative and dreamlike sensibility that worked so well in Citizenfour. The point, perhaps, is to refuse our preconceived notions of either of these celebrities, to force us to peer closer.
Like its predecessor, this is a film about character. It peers into this small community of activists and journalists, tracking how power presses down on psychology. But unlike Citizenfour, Risk creates a much more complex ecosystem of psychological power and its abuse. This is not a prequel or sequel. It is a photonegative, even a rebuttal.
Or, to use the words of the director herself, “the distractions have become the story.” And so she focuses on conversations between Assange and his English lawyer, who urges him to stop characterizing sexual assault accusations as a “radical feminist positioning thing.” There is such palpable frustration on her face as she sits there, listening to the juvenile ramblings of her client. His preferred defense is built from his own form of positioning, giddily pointing out that one of the women who has accused him is the owner of a Stockholm lesbian bar. He cannot resist his own sense of justice.
In a way, it’s amazing that Assange allows Poitras and her team to record these conversations. And he doesn’t allow her unlimited access, either. Risk includes a few times in which he insists that the cameras go off, underlining his consent in other scenes. The audience is made constantly aware of this negotiation.
This was true of Citizenfour, as well, but there it also contributed to the atmosphere of a spy thriller. Here, it is a much more cynical inclusion, extra rope with which Assange’s ego seems eager to hang itself. The story is not only the facts of political and legal battle, but his total confidence in his own character.
It’s not just Assange, either. Poitras also profiles Jacob Appelbaum, another Internet activist who featured prominently in Citizenfour. Like Assange, he is most at home in confrontations with the suited representatives of authority. We see him bring his righteous anger to a conference in Egypt, crusading with a microphone against telecoms that blocked access to Twitter during the revolution.
Later, however, Poitras returns to his narrative at an event in Tunisia, where he is leading an Internet security workshop for local activists. He embarrasses himself with a culturally inappropriate metaphor involving condoms, a telling misstep. But the really significant shot comes shortly thereafter, in which he helps a woman with something on her laptop by standing directly behind her, bending down and reaching his arms around her to get to the keyboard.
All of this leads into the launch of a website, built by a “collective of people who have been harassed, plagiarized, humiliated and abused” by Appelbaum. The allegations, once dismissed as distractions, have become the story. These men are more complex than rebellious images projected to crowds of supporters, either in person or over Skype. They are also more human than the villainous effigies that have been stuffed over the years by American cable news. They are simultaneously challenges to and holders of power, a balance that both Appelbaum and Assange have managed pretty atrociously.
Assange, after all, is often a compelling figure. When he tells Poitras of his personal refusal to be seen as a martyr, it is almost convincingly modest. The implication is that the mission is more important, that Wikileaks should be the story rather than its founder. But what Risk explores is the other side of this narrative. Assange, perhaps, rejects the role of the martyr simply because a martyr, by definition, is dead. Dead men are silent, and therefore have no audience.