Ben Nicholson Documentary

Film Review: Risk

★★★☆☆

Laura Poitras returns with another probing political documentary, but this time the film’s own post production proves as fascinating as its whistle-blowing subject. The thought of several years of unprecedented access to Julian Assange and Wikileaks is more than enough on its own to whet the appetite of documentary fans.

That this access was granted to Laura Poitras, director of My Country, My Country, The Oath, and Citizenfour makes the prospect of Risk an all the more exciting one. However, it’s not the high stakes, the flight from the threat of extradition, or even the inscrutable Assange that make this such an absorbing watch; it’s the knowledge that the version of Risk playing in UK cinemas from this week is a very different one to that which premiered in Cannes over a year ago.

When Variety’s Peter Debruge reviewed Risk after its Cannes bow in 2016, he asked: “Are we watching a work of journalism or a glorified fan film?” One wouldn’t exactly level that same question at the second cut of the film, which by all accounts proves to be a more critical piece overall. It would seem that Poitras’ opinion of Assange, or at least the strength of her concerns about him, was affected by Wikileaks involvement in the build-up to the US election. That’s not to say that the filmmaker does not still believe wholeheartedly in the work of Wikileaks, but that she has criticisms of the man at its centre. When asked about the potential contradiction of these diverging opinions at a screening, Poitras argued that: “Assange’s misogyny does not cancel out the importance of WikiLeaks. It is increasingly important to allow both things to be true.”

These knotty questions permeate Risk which is admittedly a ragged affair. Attempting to condense down six years of intermittent footage is always a difficult task, particularly when that period spanned both Assange’s race to the Ecuadorian embassy in London (far lass thrilling than you might have expected) and Poitras’ meetings with Edward Snowden, as well as some latterly added election material. Assange is, naturally, a compelling presence, although it is difficult to shake the feeling that Poitras’ presence is somehow intended to serve his own purpose. “Why does he trust me?” she asks in a diaristic voiceover aside, “I don’t think he likes me.”

Indeed, while watching behind-the-scenes footage of negotiations that will have far-reaching ramifications is a natural thrill, it is the relationship between Poitras (and her camera) and Assange that becomes the most gripping. Poitras’ voiceovers give personal context to the pointing of her lens, but also suggest someone who certainly got too close to her material to potentially compromise herself as a journalist. Instead, she has had to frame Risk through her experience, even when this meant re-cutting the film as her position shifted.

The most interesting element of this is that Poitras’ integrity meant that she needed to make her subjectivity clear where some documentarians would not have. Risk‘s re-tooling serves as a reminder that even observational journalistic documentary is relayed through the frame of the filmmaker’s eye. In this case, Poitras places her unreliability on centre stage, and in doing so, makes sure that we’re acutely aware of how she – and indeed Julian Assange – want us to digest each frame of Risk.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson