Cannes 2016: Risk review


Following the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, which recorded Edward Snowden blowing the loudest of whistles, Laura Poitras arrives in Cannes’ Quinzaine sidebar with Risk, a superb character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The divisive and controversial figure is a hero of free speech to some, a reckless egomaniac with predatory sexual practices to others, and both to many more. The prior cinematic treatments of Assange – Alex Gibney’s conventional documentary We Steal Secrets and Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate – both came out in 2013 and treated Assange with a largely critical eye. An organisation that is all about anonymity is headed by the largest of personalities; a campaigner against state surveillance uses surveillance to defeat his enemies

Risk is not as obviously critical, but neither does it produce a hagiography. Poitras’ style is both of participation and cool observation. Strangely, it’s her involvement in the story – she stays off-screen but is pointed out and talked to several times – gifts her with an intimacy as the WikiLeaks team let down their guard and relax in her presence. Predating Citizenfour, filming for Risk began in 2011 and the structure of the film is a series of loose fragments broken up by Roman numeral intertitles. We first meet Assange and close collaborator Sarah Harrison as they try to get through to Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State, to talk about another site which is imminently dumping non-redacted cables onto the internet. Playing cat-and-mouse with State Department lawyers, they try to come up with a solution whilst at the same time wary that they’ll be blamed for damage caused. At one point Sarah suggests the US might prefer the non-redacted dump so they can nail WikiLeaks and the news value will be lessened by sheer volume.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks’ technical expert Jacob Applebaum is trawling the conferences being held by security companies in order to reveal how they’re using the latest tech to spy on entire populations, taking the Arab Spring as a case in point. He’s a likeable character who is genuinely appalled by what corporates are doing for oppressive regimes. Seeing him berate those companies during a panel in Cairo is an inspiring sight, as is the moment when he phones Apple to tell them that spyware is being installed via fake iTunes updates. He also has an interesting argument with Assange about how much risk people should go to when doing nothing might be seen as more risky. It’s a core argument and one which makes Assange come off as both heartless and reckless. It’s this disagreement within the organisation, the friendship and nervousness that makes for such a compellingly intimate portrayal of genuine commitment.

Minor details such as Assange’s sudden anxiety in a park, his almost schoolboy joy in spying on the police outside the Ecuadorian embassy and his rock ‘n’ roll disguises reveal him to be something of a narcissist, occasionally dislikeable and yet at the same time someone who is doing invaluable work. The alleged sexual offences are not explored in any true depth but Poitras does include a clip of a conversation where Assange clearly states that he’s victim of a conspiracy, much to the discomfort of the women in the room. An interview with Lady Gaga is also a counterpoint to the other forms of media that contrast with Poitras’ more considered approach. “What’s your favourite food?” is the first question. We don’t find that out, but we do get a complex and nuanced view of a team who at great personal sacrifice rallied against the most powerful institutions in the world and are still at it. Poitras’ Risk is a proud participant in that struggle.

The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty