The filmmaker on being placed on a terror watch list, aesthetic approaches, and Julian Assange’s gender politics in her new documentary Risk
The most memorable image in Citizenfour (2014) is also the first: a long, dark tunnel with a strip of lights darting overhead, as the drone soundtrack slowly crescendos. ‘Laura,’ the narrator says. ‘At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the US intelligence community ...’ Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning documentary was a revelation; it detailed the architecture of the West’s cyber-spying regimes and was the first intimate portrayal of Edward Snowden, the exiled whistle-blower who has come, for many, to represent the moral conscience of post-9/11 America. But its use of genre and style suggested that the documentary was more than merely functional – it was a work of cinema, too.
That drone music, ratcheted up and paired with a sharper melody, returns in Poitras’ new film, Risk (2017). In this context, however, it doesn’t so much suggest the buzzing totality of the US security state as it does the peculiar mind of Julian Assange, its most famous antagonist. Filmed over six years, Risk documents the Wikileaks founder’s decisive moments: the house arrest in Norfolk, his response to the allegations of rape in Sweden, seeking asylum in the UK’s Ecuadorian Embassy, and the publication of emails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US Presidential Elections.
As Poitras’ voice-over tells us, Risk isn’t the film she set out to make. What begins as the documentation of a political conflict between Wikileaks and the US government turns into a damning critique of Assange’s misogyny and megalomania. Unlike Snowden, the men of Risk, which includes the ‘hacktivist’ Jacob Appelbaum, a friend of Assange’s who has also been accused of sexual abuse, are not sympathetic characters. Poitras observes the way they treat people around them – especially women – and uses these moments to slowly build a moral argument. It is no surprise that Assange hasn’t just disavowed the film but called it a ‘threat to his freedom’.
Risk is Poitras’ first film since the installations contained within her solo art exhibition, ‘Astro Noise’ (2016), at the Whitney Museum, which wove together leaked NSA videos and time-lapse footage of drones flying across night skies. We spoke over the phone about Assange’s gender politics, the impact of being placed on a terror-related watch list, and the origins of her unflappable rebelliousness.
Yohann Koshy Like Citizenfour, Risk often displays genre elements suggestive of a thriller. Are these qualities inherent to the experience of being there – the lives of Assange and Snowden as objectively ‘thrilling’ in a narrative sense – or is it something you impose on the material?
Laura Poitras It emerges from the material itself. Yes, I’m making choices; I film things as they happen in an observational way. But the choices I make are often just pulling from the experience I’m having in the room, or wherever I am. People spoke about Citizenfour as a thriller but from my perspective – receiving anonymous emails from someone I didn’t know saying that he knew about illegal government mass spying – I felt as if I were in some weird movie thriller myself.
The same thing happened with Risk. Julian wasn’t telling me what he was going to do one minute to the next. For example, I didn’t know what he was going to do in the moments before he went into the embassy. I knew something was up because people were burning notes and he was changing his appearance but I had no idea what was happening next.
I think the drama of the situation gets filtered into the film and the way it unfolds. It does have that genre feeling, with paranoia and stuff, but all those things are what everybody was feeling. Julian was being monitored by intelligence agencies. Yes, I’m interested in playing with genre, but I also feel like I want the material to determine the aesthetic approach.
YK At what point did you realise that Risk ‘wasn’t the film [you] set out to make’, that Assange’s gender politics were not incidental but the substance of the story?
LP I think it happened throughout the filming process. But it really crystallized when we screened a version right before we showed at Cannes and Julian and his lawyers were demanding we take all those scenes out [which show his gender politics in a bad light]. We said, ‘no,’ and there was a lot of push and pull. We didn’t do it and then Julian sends this text, which you hear in the film, in which he says the film is a ‘threat to his freedom’ and he has to treat it accordingly. I felt all that needed to be in the film.
Then once the allegations surrounding Jacob Appelbaum came to the surface I knew I would have to include it in the film or I couldn’t release it. So it happened before we screened at Cannes and then afterwards.
YK You’ve said that violence against women can be found in all movements and groups. But is there also something specific about hacktivists’ libertarian ideology that contributes to this structural problem?
LP I think it’s something we see consistently getting replicated both in a work environment and in social movements. I don’t think it’s anything new. What I do hope is maybe the film is a way for other movements and organizations in the future to think: OK, let’s do it differently. It’s unfortunate when you have these contradictions between a larger ideological goal … But I don’t think it’s particular to one community or the other.
You know, I feel there is a kind of tragic set of circumstances in this case. With the allegations from Sweden, there was no due process – Julian didn’t get due process and neither did the women in the case. It shouldn’t take six or seven years to ultimately drop an investigation. That isn’t fair to anyone. So, I don’t know, I think the film captures these really unfortunate and tragic circumstances, which are influenced by multiple forces. I think there’s no doubt that there are intelligence organizations that are targeting Julian’s work. That’s not paranoia.
YK During the years you spent making these films you were routinely detained at the US border and were placed on a terror-related watch list. How did this inform your work as an artist?
LP It’s affected me in multiple ways. I first started being detained at the borders in 2006 so it’s been going on for a long time. It’s informed my work in the sense it’s made me much better at navigating how to avoid state surveillance, because I’ve had to develop skills in order to keep doing this kind of work. I guess it’s also made me more determined to keep doing work. But it’s also added a tremendous amount of stress: I left the United States for over two years because of being on this terrorist watch list. It’s had an enormous impact.
It was also a mistake from the perspective of the government, because it enabled me to learn a bunch of skills so that when Edward Snowden contacted me I actually knew how to protect the source and do the reporting. It backfired on them.
YK This is your first feature since the Whitney exhibition last year. Do you find that different media impose different limits?
LP There are different limits and opportunities. Doing the Whitney piece was actually incredibly liberating. There were certain things I was able to hand over control of – so, for instance, time. I could let something play longer than I would if it was for film. I can let the audience decide how much time they want to spend.
It was also possible to use space as an editing device and narrative through-line. The piece at the Whitney had a beginning, middle and end but it was arched out in a very spatial way. This is different from long-form film, which usually has a plot. It was creatively exciting and challenging to work with installation projects around the same themes. I was able to create a narrative experience, but not worry about the plot.
YK It’s interesting that you’re more comfortable handing over control to the audience. Jean-Luc Godard once described Alfred Hitchcock as the ‘master of the universe’. Does the level of power you command as a filmmaker over your subject matter sit uncomfortably with your anti-authoritarian politics?
LP Well, first of all, Hitchcock is the master of the universe! His films are extraordinary. I actually just watched Shadow of a Doubt (1943) two days ago. Is there a contradiction? I identify myself as a filmmaker and an artist and I think every kind of art form is about expression, and I don’t think expression equates with control. It means: what is it that you have to say? Obviously my work is absolutely informed by what I film and the people that I film with. I’m trying to make work that’s truthful and honest.
YK Your production company is called Praxis Films. What is praxis for you – is it about having a ‘real world effect’?
LP It’s not so much about having a ‘real world’ effect but about filming real world events. I do cinéma vérité or observational cinema, which means I’m filming people in real time as things are unfolding. It’s founded on two things: one is that it’s inherently dramatic; the other is that what people say about themselves can be different than their actions. So it’s through watching these actions that we understand who people are. My filmmaking practice is grounded in action, as opposed to other types of documentary.
It’s also this idea of trying to create a record of historical moments. I made a film about the Iraq War [My Country, My Country (2006)] and it was from the perspective of Iraqis. It’s a film that follows an individual but it’s also a record of a war and occupation. It’s the same with all of my work – Edward Snowden in the hotel room in Hong Kong. As a filmmaker, I’m making choices to filter and create a narrative, but it’s also the record of a moment in history.
YK You have a definite rebelliousness too though, right?
YK You must have thought about where this comes from in your life.
LP I think the work that I’ve been doing has been responding to historical circumstances. I feel that comes from both a feeling of wanting to respond as both a filmmaker and a creative person who feels moral outrage about the occupation of Iraq, about torture, about Guantanamo, about mass surveillance, about the targeting of whistle-blowers and journalists.
There’s also the basic fact that I am a documentarian and I have certain skills that can engage with that and critique it. It’s important to interrogate what my government is doing and be a critical voice. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has failed to ask critical questions. And that really doesn’t serve democracy or the public in any way.
Laura Poitras is a filmmaker, journalist and artist. Citizenfour, the third instalment of her post-9/11 Trilogy, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Her latest film Risk is released in the UK on 30 June.
Main image: Julian Assange in Laura Poitras’s Risk, 2017. Courtesy: Praxis Films