Who is Julian Assange? A hero? An amoral opportunist? A danger for international security? Maybe all of these. It is clear that for a part of his personal story, Julian Assange became a global icon for freedom of information online, for the fight against the conspiracy and secrecy of the power. Then things changed and his halo began to slip. RISK by the director Laura Poitras, Oscar-winner in 2015 with her film CITIZENFOUR on the revelations of Edward Snowden, has had an “intimate” and prolonged look (five years of filming) at the king of hackers.
Australian by birth, computer genius, as every talent that concerns Assange promises to be from the very beginning. From a very young age he led The International Subversives, a group that spent its time hacking into the computer networks of half the world. From being reported one after another at the end risking to be imprisoned, Assange in the early nineties was one of the most expert “hackers” in the world. In 2006 he founded Wikileaks, an online platform allowing anonymous sources to publish classified and confidential documents, that is highly sensitive from a political and military point of view.
RISK is iconic from the first scene. A bottle of red wine opened with his teeth and the Assange – thoughts flowing.
“Most people with very strong principles do not survive long. Many times in the history of WikiLeaks I had to be ruthlessly pragmatic, understanding that if you give in in the short-term, you do n ot corrupt your long-term objectives […..], int he short term you must be quite willing to balance both to be able to survive the moment.”
Five years of unexpectedly difficult filming for Laura Poitras.
“I believed in this project …it seemed that WikiLeaks itself was reinventing journalism, a journalism that had not been done since September 11 […], I don’t know why he accepted my proposal, I actually thought he didn’t like me.”
Probably, Assange expected a hagiography film.
Great Britain, Nordfolk, 2011. Assange is under house arrest for allegations of sexually assaulting two young Swedish women. Sweden has requested his extradition to interrogate him, even if he has not formally been charged. A scheme of the American government, as Assange described, firmly dismissing all the allegations, which have been meanwhile filed without any fanfare.
The fact is that Julian Assange has lived for five years as a political refugee in a room of the Embassy of Ecuador in London where he arrived in disguise in a motorbike while, at the same moment, a court hearing was rejecting (predictably) the appeal against the extradition request.
Like Snowden before him (in whose escape Assange had made a considerable contribution) Assange also feared, and with reason, to end up inthe hands of American justice. He was expecting an accusation, already filed by the Gran Jury, of espionage and conspiracy. In 2010, WikiLeaks released online about 500,000 classified military documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the biggest news leaks in American military history. Detailed reports published by the main international newspapers (The Guardian, The New Work Times, Der Spiegel) that cast a very heavy shadow over the military operations in the Middle East, ont heir continuing lack of success and violations of international law (use of large numbers of drones, arbitrary bombings, escalation of victims among civilians). But above all, they opened the eyes of the unaware and dormant American public opinion.
The sentence can be very though, up to life imprisonment. Better not to risk it.
The Julian Assange of RISK is a complex and controversial character, a mix of vulnerability, paranoia, omnipotent delirium (“I am not a normal person”), self-complacency, but also fragility. Arrogant to the tolerable limits when he insistently asks to speak with Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State.
“They informed us that our passwords have been deciphered. 250, 000 confidential reports of the Department of State archives are about to be published online […] set underway emergency procedures […] to understand each other,it’s you that have a problem, we are trying to help you because we are involved in your problem.”
It is not enough to get Clinton to the telephone. Unperturbed, a voice at the other end of the line: “..we have not been able to prevent you from publishing sensitive documents, why should we be able to with others?”
The same pose with a good dose of victim pride added before an exceptional interviewer – Lady Gaga.
“Let’s not pretend that I am a normal person .. it’s not importnat how I feel, the question is much bigger than about how I feel […]”
“Who is after Assange?”
“Well, let’s say that there are more than twelve American intelligence organizations, the FBI, CIA, CENT COM (Pentagon Central Command), the Department of Defense, the Diplomatic Security Service.”
“And the rest of the world?”
“The Australian government with its intelligence body, the federal police.”
“Do you ever feel like crying?”
“Not even when you are happy?”
The allegations of sexual assaults weigh like a rock over the filming, which had begun just before the case exploded.
“The allegations are a feminist lesbian conspiracy”, thunders Assange during an interview with Helena Kennedy, the English icon of civil and legal battles for human rights. Consternation and astonishment appear on the baroness’s face. “Is it possible that someone like Assange can publically say something quite improper like this?”
“No, of course, not publically.” (J. Assange)
Instead, it astonishes us to know that the man celebrated by millions of young people, as the champion of transparency and free expression has put so much pressure on Laura Poitras because his unwise expression (and others) was cut from the film.
“Laura, the screening of this film is a threat to my freedom.” (J. Assange)
Assange appears to have tried in vain to block the distribution of RISK. The break between the two is irremediable.
“An historical figure because of what he has done, transforming journalism, he understood before all the others how Internet was changing world policies. I am sorry, he is so furious with me.” (Laura Poitras)
In a room packed with journalists starved for TV news, Sarah Harrison, editor of WikiLeaks and incredibly loyal to Julian (the blonde who saved Snowden) announces the publication of the embarrassing Syrian files regarding the regime, but also the opposition.
Harrison’s entry into the lion’s den – “[…] a press conference with all the Londin media […] they all hate you!” – is orchestrated by Assange – “[…] journalists are like s… on your shoes!” – Harrison glosses over his escape, changes subject, talks about WikeaLeaks and its mission under the media spotlight.
“[…] we are about to publish more than two million emails of politicians, ministers and various people involved in the war in Syria. They will help us to understand the interests, actions and thinking of all those involved … we don’t want to only free ourselves of Assad, but also his enemies.”
It is in the name of these professional ethics (?) that Assange and his people, in October of 2016 on the eve of the US presidential election, publish on WikiLeaks thousands of emails of the Democratic Party on the electoral campaign of Hillary Clinton, from the financing of Goldman Sachs to the plot to torpedo Bernie Sanders.
There is enough to compromise the Democrats’ run for the White House. The emails (many it seems), were hacked into by the Russians in the service of the Kremlin. They, of course, contributed considerably to Clinton’s defeat.
“Hillary versus Trump, it is now certain unless one is hit by a stroke or the other assassineted, it is clear that it will be a disaster in both cases. With Clinton we will have a sharp tongue that will try to get rid of us, if Trump wins we will have a completely unpredictable person. I discovered many interesting things about Hillary, unfortunately it wasn’t the case for Trump, but there must be a lot of stuff.” (Assange on the phone to Sarah Harrison).
And indeed. It all came out in a quite short time. But not because of Assange.
We could ask ourselves, what would have happened if Julian Assange had published embarassing documents about Donald Trump? Would the American establishment have redeem him? We will never know.