The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Laura Poitras wanted to make a film about WikiLeaks. Then she got pulled into the story.

Documentarian Laura Poitras in D.C. to promote “Risk,” her controversial new movie about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

“Risk” wasn’t the movie Laura Poitras expected to make. The documentarian, who won an Oscar for chronicling Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing in “Citizenfour,” spent years following Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks team starting in 2011, including his right-hand woman, Sarah Harrison, and collaborator Jacob Appelbaum.

But as she filmed, a movie about the dangerous business of disseminating classified information turned into a story about avoiding extradition, not to mention a character study of the highly controversial figure. Assange made waves by releasing the Chelsea Manning-leaked war logs and video of what WikiLeaks called a “collateral murder” in Iraq — long before Hillary Clinton partially blamed him for losing her the presidency. Poitras couldn’t have guessed she’d end up capturing footage of Assange sneaking around and donning a disguise in order to seek asylum at London’s Ecuadorian embassy. He did so in 2012 after a British court ruled he had to go to Sweden and answer questions about allegations from two women of sexual misconduct, and he’s been holed up at the embassy ever since.

Review: ‘Risk’ offers a candid, unsettling portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Poitras, who’s now based in New York, visited Washington, D.C. recently for a screening of the movie and sat down to discuss her admiration for WikiLeaks, her complex feelings about Assange and the difficult business of alerting viewers to her own relationship with one of the film’s subjects. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Directed by Laura Poitras, this Showtime documentary is about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Poitras's role in filming him for years. (Video: Showtime)

I’m sure it’s not easy for Assange to let people in.

It took time. It’s not easy for good reason. They were really under extreme pressure in terms of the U.S. government investigation [for releasing information handed over by Manning].

How often were you filming him?

The type of filmmaking I do, verite — observational filmmaking — I’m interested in when things are happening. So things happening would be like: him going to court or when he was calling the State Department trying to reach Hillary Clinton when they realized that there was a journalist who had published one of their passwords.

That happened when I was in New York, and I got a message from somebody who works with Julian saying, “Something’s happening now if you want to get on a plane.” I heard about it at noon and I was on a plane by the end of the day. I was in Norfolk [England] 24 hours later filming.

The thing to know about Julian is he’s trying to protect information. So when he decided to seek asylum, even people on his staff didn’t know he was doing that. And he wouldn’t tell me; I’d just be there and I’d film and find out later what was happening.

I got into the car thinking we were going to court, and realized that his mom was [in town]. When I walked into the hotel room, I thought we were there just to meet his mom, but then he was changing his appearance and I was thinking, “Okay, what is happening here?”

When you went into the process of filming did you have a sense of what the story would be?

I always go in with some big questions and some big themes with every film I’ve ever made. And then once I start filming the big ideas always change.

[This project’s themes were] adversarial journalism and the internet. Julian understood the power of the internet to transform political realities globally and he understood how it was going to transform journalism and how it was going to shift power balances. And by creating this anonymous drop box where sources could release information, he was anticipating what we’ve seen since, which are these massive leaks from Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and others, where digital communication allows for more information to be shared. And so I was interested in all those themes.

But, as you see in the film, part of the plot of the story line was this fight against extradition and so that’s what I end up spending a lot of time filming.

I liked the occasional first-person narration, which helped explain some of the contradictions about him as a character. At one point you say something like, “I don’t know why he’s letting me do this. I don’t even think he likes me.” Why did you decide to include those observations?

I take notes when I’m working and write down ideas and that was coming from what I was writing at the time when I was working on the film. I think it was a way to articulate the contradictions and ambivalence I was feeling and it was also for the audience to have a way to be okay with that. I think the film contains or shows incredible bravery and brilliance and also some disturbing attitude and behaviors.

You also mentioned during voiceover that you didn’t trust him.

That was at a very different point. When I started filming with Julian, I was an outsider.

But then, when I was contacted by Snowden, I got pulled into the story as more of a participant, and I had to navigate some of the same issues. That’s where the trust issue came in, because…Julian was pressuring me to share documents [that Snowden had given her]. And I didn’t because I couldn’t. It was partly about what to redact and what not to redact — we had differences of opinions. Our split emerged out of that  because I was pulled into the story more and had to make decisions that, quite frankly, he wasn’t happy with, which is fine. It also wasn’t only my decision. It was Ed Snowden’s decision to decide who to leak information to.

But I also feel for Julian, because in that situation, [WikiLeaks editor] Sarah Harrison took enormous risks to secure [Snowden’s] asylum [and is now living in exile in Germany], and that was a risk I wouldn’t take.

Speaking of him not being too happy, I understand he’s not crazy about the movie. Are you in contact at all?

You hear in the film — I quote a text that he sent me where he says the film is a severe threat to his freedom and he’s forced to treat it accordingly. He sent me that right before a screening we did a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival. I haven’t really talked to him since I received that, but my producer has, so we’re still in contact. And my producer screened the film for him in early April. I think he’s still not happy, and what he’s expressed and asked us to do is to remove scenes where he’s speaking about the Swedish case, which we haven’t done.

Speaking of the Cannes Film Festival I know that this cut is very different from what premiered, right?

The whole third act didn’t exist before — the whole election. It’s very up-to-date as of two weeks ago when Jeff Sessions issued those very frightening threats against leakers.

How do you decide when a story that’s still unfolding is done?

I don’t mind that a film continues beyond the frame. Closure is a kind of fiction. “Citizenfour” ended on a note of a new whistleblower coming forward. The ripple effects would continue well beyond the film.

I think the similar thing with “Risk” is that the story will continue to evolve beyond where the film stops. But I felt there was closure on enough things. [James] Comey’s hearing [on March 20] was historic. To have the director of the FBI say they were investigating a sitting president was a big deal and [he addressed] the election. As soon as I saw that, I thought, okay we have the ending because it tells us the mechanics of what happened — there was a Russian hack and then an intermediary was used to share information with WikiLeaks. And even after I thought I was finished, I added those comments from Jeff Sessions.

The one voiceover that seemed like such a bombshell was your admission about having a relationship with WikiLeaks representative Jacob Appelbaum, who has been accused of sexual abuse. Did you grapple with how to handle that?

My editor Erin Casper and I grappled with it a lot. What happened was after we did the screening at Cannes, I knew [the film] wasn’t done then. But then two weeks later the allegations came out. So I have to address the allegations and, if I address the allegations, I also have to be transparent about my involvement — partly because I had insight. Not only did I reveal the involvement but I also say I knew someone close to me that he was abusive toward, and I felt like that insight was important to share with the audience. [He has denied the accusations.]

I felt the need to look at these questions around attitudes and gender that exist in the hacker community, but not just in the hacker community. I wanted to be able to say that I have no problem defending the work of WikiLeaks but I’m not going to defend behavior that is derogatory or abusive and that those two things can coexist. These are two people that have risked their freedom and everything for the work that they do and I continue to have respect for that.

Then there’s the question of getting too close to a source that you’re capturing. Do you see that as problematic and do you worry that viewers will question your credibility?

I’m not going to speak for the viewer. What had happened was, [at the time of the relationship] I thought [“Citizenfour" and “Risk"] would be one and realized it was too much for one film and I didn’t know I was coming back to the WikiLeaks film. So, you know, it’s in the film and I’ll let the audience decide how to feel about it. But the involvement happened after I was filming.

Julian has said the emails WikiLeaks released during the 2016 election didn’t come from Russia.

Well, he said that his source wasn’t a state actor.

Do you take him at his word? After filming him do you think he’s trustworthy?

It’s complicated. I do say at some point in the film that he uses code names, denial, deception and compartmentalization. Julian is interested in protecting sources. So yeah, he uses disinformation to throw people off the track all the time. That’s his style. What he’s said is that his source is not a state actor. What Comey has said is that Russia did the hack but used a cutout, or intermediary. Those are not mutually exclusive.

There’s the separate question of whether the information is newsworthy. There was a transmit of things they published that was not newsworthy and I think should have been redacted — people’s private information. But that aside, there absolutely was newsworthy information and it’s not the job of news organization to suppress or censor information, right? That’s not our job.

But it also opens up this new moment of state actors trying to game things. How are journalists going to navigate these things? You don’t want to be in a position of having to censor information. But you could have a source who presents themselves one way but could be acting on behalf of a state.

Going into filming you thought of WikiLeaks as a journalism organization. Do you still?

When they first started publishing the “war logs” in 2010, the press here wasn’t reporting about the wars. So of course they’re a journalistic organization, and I think they pushed the boundaries and pushed for more aggressive journalism across the board.

I think they’ve really contributed enormously, which isn’t to say I agree with all of their choices. That’s a difference of opinion but that’s not a challenge or a question to the mission. I defend their work. And I think it’s really terrifying to see the director of the CIA and the attorney general and the head of the FBI targeting a publisher. The idea that it’s not going to ripple through other news organization or other journalists is really foolish.

Do you notice that when people come to your film, Assange’s defenders see your movie as a heroic portrait and his detractors see it as a hit job?

With all of my films there’s a range of interpretations because they’re observational. I am trying to make a complex film that gives insight and people come away with different opinions.

But then, people are pretty polarized right now. They have a tendency to jump on sides.