Laura Poitras takes on the contradictions of Julian Assange in ‘Risk’
NEW YORK — When Edward Snowden’s incendiary revelations about massive secret NSA spying programs exploded onto the world stage in 2013, the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras found herself at the white-hot center of questions surrounding government surveillance, whistleblowing, and the leaking of classified data. She documented the earth-shaking events in her real-life documentary thriller “Citizenfour,” which won her an Oscar.
Now she’s back in the limelight again with “Risk,” a film about Julian Assange. She’d been granted unprecedented access to the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, including filming him as he fled in a disguise to the Ecuadorian embassy to seek asylum in 2012 and in candid conversations about the sexual assault allegations against him in Sweden. Then he cut off contact with her in an angry phone call.
While she believes deeply in WikiLeaks’s journalistic mission, there were contradictions she couldn’t ignore about Assange himself and some of those around him. Those contradictions had become part of the story and affected how she reshaped “Risk,” which opens in Boston on Friday. The raven-haired Poitras, a native of Holliston, Mass., spoke to the Globe at her offices in Lower Manhattan. She will be at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline on May 14 for an audience Q&A after the 3 p.m. showing.
Q. The film premiered in Cannes last year, but you went back and recut it because there were some new developments, including Assange and WikiLeaks becoming part of the US election drama. How has the film changed?
A. It changed significantly in terms of focus. After Cannes, there were allegations of sexual misconduct made against another person in the film [the tech activist Jacob Appelbaum, a core member of the Tor Project and formerly part of Assange’s inner circle]. When those allegations came forward, I felt I had to either include that or not release the film. That’s why I went back in and reworked it and brought in new material and brought more of my voice into the film.
Q. How did you grapple with those allegations against Appelbaum and Assange?
A. I felt it was important to look at the allegations that were emerging in this community and the hacker community around gender and allegations of sexual misconduct. Once it happened with [Appelbaum], I felt I had an obligation to include that. And it’s a complicated thing to do because I very much believe in everyone’s right to due process in this. But I also think it’s important to talk about questions around these allegations in work environments. What I’m trying to do with the film is say that when it comes to transgressions, discriminatory comments, those kinds of things, you need to call them out when you see them. So that’s why I reworked the film — to not pull punches around those points.
Q. You reveal in the film that you were involved in a relationship with Appelbaum at one point a few years ago.
A. Yeah, in 2014. I felt like if I’m going to address [the allegations], then I had to disclose it, because there was insight that I wanted to bring into the film about someone I know [whom] he’d been abusive towards.
Q. How did the contradictions become part of the story?
A. I think that I began the project, in 2011, feeling sort of idealistic about [WikiLeaks], and then I sort of became aware of these contradictions that I didn’t feel that comfortable with. So, for instance, some of the things that are in the film: Julian speaking about women or describing the [sexual assault] allegations [in Sweden] as radical feminist positioning. I don’t feel comfortable with that. So I realized that the film needed to encompass both these ideals — the ideals of WikiLeaks, of transparency, of exposing government secrets or government wrongdoing or crimes. They’ve done journalism that’s revealed a lot of things the public should know. I support their ideology around that. I support the mission. But I have questions about other parts of it.
Q. What are the questions you hope audiences will meditate on after seeing “Risk”?
A. Right now I’m trying to get a handle on this political moment where we’re not quite sure who is pulling the strings. I just think that it’s very precarious time, where truth, for instance, is being questioned. And what is truth? And what’s journalism? So I think the film is trying to not so much answer those questions, but to express them. I feel that we’re in this really dark historical moment, politically speaking, in this country, and I hope that the film captures that. I also hope the film provides a space for people to talk about questions around gender and advance the conversation around gender. With past political movements, you had issues around gender that people didn’t talk about because there was a larger issue at stake. So I think it’s important that organizations and political movements address these problems when they come up and not just excuse behavior that is abusive or discriminatory.
Q. How have things changed since the election?
A. In 2011, the Internet really felt like a democratizing force. And it still is. But we also have to understand when it’s being marshaled by governments and how it can be gamed and used.
Q. Was it chilling to hear snippets of a leaked conversation among FBI agents discussing you in a meeting?
A. Yeah, it’s pretty disturbing to have the FBI describing you as an anti-American documentary filmmaker. It wasn’t a surprise. You don’t do this kind of reporting around intelligence agencies without them paying attention to you. But that doesn’t stop me from making documentary films.
Q. You’re a fly-on-the-wall documentary observer at heart. With Snowden and now Assange, has it been uncomfortable for you to become part of the story?
A. I knew in 2013 [with the Snowden revelations] that it was going to end, that I was going to become much more public. But it’s not something I ever wanted, and it’s still not a position that I gravitate towards. I mean, if you look at my previous films, you don’t hear my voice [laughs]. But I have to grapple with the fact that I am a participant in some ways and I have to acknowledge that to the audience.