Laura Poitras’ Risk seems, at first, concerned with mapping time. Onscreen text tells us that in 2006 Wikileaks launched an anonymous online document submission system and that in 2010 they received hundreds of thousands of leaked documents from the United States Military and State Department. In 2011, we watch as Jacob Appelbaum speaks in Cairo about that year’s revolution. We track the days Wikileaks founder Julian Assange spends in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, starting on 19 June 2012. The film opens with undated interview footage, though we can probably assume it’s post-2012. Assange pours three glasses of scotch (neat) for himself, journalist and Wikileaks editor Sarah Harrison, and Poitras. He reflects on how he’s had to not hold so fast to conviction, how he’s had to be “ruthlessly pragmatic.” Then: titlecard; then: footage from 2010? We’re caught slightly off-guard by the timeline theatrics, which will become a feature of the documentary. The slight distancing from a clean journalistic narrative widens into a chasm as soon as the seams start to show themselves.
A ‘production journal’ read out by Poitras in voiceover serves to give the film some semblance of structure and delineated meaning, though it’s difficult to trust. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” Poitras says about a third of the way through, as if to excuse the mess. Despite taking a year to recut the film following its Cannes premiere in 2016, it’s not apparent Poitras and co-editor Melody London found ‘the film’ at all. Production began in 2010 and what would have been an intimate portrait of Wikileaks’ inner workings gives way to something potentially more reactive; the Manning trial, sexual assault allegations, the Embassy move, the role Wikileaks played in the election of Donald Trump and, of course, an aggressively annoying Lady Gaga interview all demand attention.
Like in Citizenfour, these headline-grabbing scenes are old news, but unlike her Oscar-winner, Poitras is unwilling to pull together a documentary time capsule, straining for the contemporary — she edited the film again a few months ago to include a comment made by current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Citizenfour’s window into already pored-over events feels important because of its confinement, drawing out a tangible human element in Snowden and those interviewing him. That’s lacking in Risk not only because of its chaotic approach to time and news but also because Assange is slippery and evasive where Edward Snowden is refreshingly plain-spoken. The Wikileaks founder’s frank plotting throughout is never just that — it’s performance, and a tiresome one to boot. The effect is reminiscent of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, where the veteran documentarian was outwitted by Bush Jr.’s former defense secretary.
At least Donald Rumsfeld was perversely fascinating; it’s more interesting to think about Assange than it is to watch him at length. The intellectual appeal in filming his isolation and detachment is in capturing an inherent hypocrisy. Wikileaks and “media activism,” as Marxist theorist Franco Berardi argued in 2013, “has been able to divert the flows of information…and to expose the contradictions of power” but these alone do not solve what he sees as the real problem: “autonomy – the actual ability to withdraw from the automatisms that are supporting power.” While Assange is physically withdrawn, he’s caught up in the way he is being reported in the mainstream media. Poitras presents him as aloof; holed up in a Norfolk manor in 2011 with his editors and lawyers, convinced people could be hiding in the surrounding woodland, claiming the sexual assault charges laid against him are couched in “a tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing”. That moment gets him a cleverly edited staredown from a lawyer briefing him. But tracking media dissemination, so potently observed in Citizenfour, is not Poitras’ goal here.
This moment, like so many of the most compelling in Risk, is merely peripheral. Wikileaks lawyers briefly discuss the legal strategy of the US government with regards to Pvt. Manning and quote one lawyer as having said that “the free internet is a tool for jihad.” Poitras dwells on a duo of leaked materials too: footage Chelsea Manning sent to Wikileaks in 2010 of US drone operators killing a group of men — two journalists among them — in Baghdad in 2007, and an audio tape of an FBI briefing where Poitras herself is the subject. The latter is reminiscent of Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s unnerving Field of Vision short Project X; the audio footage is paired with shots of mammoth, anonymous buildings. Much of Risk would have been better served as a of Field of Vision short, notwithstanding moments that centre on Assange himself. In one such sequence we watch him in a hotel room as he disguises himself with dyed hair and coloured contact lenses. His mother paces around the room quietly, then writes a note to him with a texta: it simply reads “I love you”.
Where the promise of a feature film emerges is in the investigation of sexual harassment and assault within the hacktivist community. While Poitras dwells on accusations against Jacob Appelbaum, with whom she was briefly involved, it comes so late in the film as to feel a relative afterthought. The competing theses of the documentary all feel underserved, though, something succinctly displayed in the film’s final twenty minutes: a string of updates and angles, superficially grasped, in search of a pointed relevancy slipping ever out of reach.