Filmed over six years, Risk (2016) is a character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story, director Laura Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle. Written by
Real Art Ways
Director Laura Poitras and the distributor of Risk (2016) gave misleading statements after the new version of the documentary was finally released in May 2017. In an act of re-writing film history, the official premiere at the Directors' Fortnight of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival was now suddenly declared a "work in progress" screening. This is factually incorrect, since the Directors' Fortnight screening was presented as the finished film, without any additional warning, that changes were likely to be made. This is the reason why many reviews were written and published shortly after the Cannes 2016 screening. Poitras even started to give interviews in Cannes to journalists, for example The Wrap's Steve Pond (published online on May 19, 2016), and talked about "Risk" like it was a past project. In that interview she says only positive things about Julian Assange and Jacob Appelbaum. See more »
Manipulative & morally troubling art film that shouldn't be confused with accurate journalism
"Risk" is interesting as a work of art, because Laura Poitras has a cinematic style that uses the suggestive power of images and sounds. The eerie avant garde music by newcomer Jeremy Flower dominates the soundtrack like in a thriller. It's a documentary that tries to be 'exciting' and 'complex', which is good for every work of art.
But "Risk" wants to be journalism, too. It's about real people with real problems. It's more than entertainment. My biggest problem with the film is, that it simply doesn't deliver here, which is sad, because Laura Poitras had a unique access and probably has 200 hours of footage at home.
The WikiLeaks lawyers wrote a long complaint about this film and they are right, I think.
REPRESENTING WIKILEAKS LIKE A CULT
Why do we never see an interview with Sarah Harrison or the other women at the center of WikiLeaks ? What about Gavin MacFadyen, Vaughan Smith or other key people?
By marginalizing the WikiLeaks women, and excluding all the other contributors, Poitras creates the impression, that Julian Assange is as dominant as a cult leader. The gender relations are characterized - in a non-verbal way - as unequal and the women as nearly submissive, always working like bees to 'please' their sinister 'master' Julian. The portrait that Laura Poitras paints of WikiLeaks follows the old stereotype, that it's an ideological sect dominated by one power-hungry man, who knows no limits.
I'm sure, that the women, staff & contributors would have told a very different story of why they do what they do, but Laura Poitras only asks Assange a few questions - and nobody else. This is highly manipulative.
CREATING AMBIGUITY INSTEAD OF REPORTING NECESSARY FACTS
Why did Laura Poitras remove the whole section of WikiLeaks' triumph at the United Nations, where top Human Rights lawyers decided that Assange's treatment was unlawful? By not showing this surprising victory - Sweden dropped the whole investigation now - Julian Assange appears much more ambiguous. Poitras clearly wants to create as much ambiguity concerning WikiLeaks as possible, which is O.K. for art, but not for journalism.
It's the same with Jacob Appelbaum, who comes across like a 'guilty' person, even if the facts don't really support the view of Laura Poitras: While it's true, that there were allegations against him, most of them have been refuted by journalists and no official complaints exist. But Poitras still included them, because she has personal reasons: In the V.O. she says that Appelbaum "was abusive to someone close to me", which seems to be some kind of 'proof' for her. But we don't get a name or any information what kind of "abuse" Appelbaum committed, only the vague impression that he's a bad, bad guy. What did he do? Did he kick Laura's dog? Or did he tease her cat?
Sorry, but that's not journalism or responsible filmmaking, because neither Mr. Appelbaum nor the audience can verify or refute an empty statement like that. It's simply a manipulation of the audience.
LAURA KNOWS WHAT?
Laura Poitras asks the audience to always trust her, because 'Laura knows', but this is childish.
Why should we trust Laura Poitras to always tell the truth - if she even has access to it - when she sometimes doesn't even get small facts correct and manipulates reality for her storytelling like it pleases her?
A beautiful example for the problem of manipulation-by-editing is a short sequence in a Berlin S-Bahn near the end, where we see Sarah Harrison. Everybody who knows Berlin can see, that the editing creates an impossible continuity: First we see the station 'Hackescher Markt', then we hear a voice announcing the station 'Berlin Hauptbahnhof' and at last we see her driving by the station 'Alexanderplatz'. The editing creates a nonsensical and physically impossible trip in this sequence, but only people who know Berlin will even see this.
If Laura Poitras doesn't care about these details - that she obviously knew were wrong, since she lived in Berlin - then how much did she care about accuracy in other parts of her movie, where she asks us to simply 'trust' her ?
Poitras also mentions in one sentence - like it doesn't matter - that Appelbaum used to be her boyfriend in 2014. That's all the info we get, despite the big credibility problems this creates for an observational documentary. To have sex with your subjects while you pretend to create an objective 'journalistic film' is ridiculous. Does Appelbaum come across as 'guilty' in her film, because Ms. Poitras wanted to take revenge on Appelbaum, who left her for a younger woman?
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
The life of Jacob Appelbaum is more or less destroyed after this film, but Laura Poitras and her distributor try now very hard to win another Academy Award for this 'achievement' - this is obscene.
She needs to simply present more credible evidence before she represents people as bad guys in her 'thrillers', otherwise it becomes unethical and morally troubling filmmaking.
It certainly didn't made me appreciate Laura Poitras as a journalist, because she does care more for her art & drama than accurate & balanced journalism.
VISUAL JOURNALISM HAS NOT THE SAME LIBERTIES AS ART
I'm all for trying new ways of reporting on real-life stories: Laura Poitras' "Field of Vision" project wanted to explore 'visual journalism' and it sounded exciting to me.
But "Risk" is regressive in it's ignorant approach and does a disservice to the credibility of her 'visual journalism' project and the documentary form itself.
More visual reporting and data visualization in journalism is good, but it has to be accurate, balanced, fair and based on legit methods & credible sources otherwise it becomes a work of art & fiction, that can't claim any journalistic value.
Poitras' "Risk" definitely crossed the line.
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