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‘Risk’ Takes On Julian Assange: The Dramatic Story Behind Laura Poitras’ Oscar Follow-Up

Laura Poitras revealed one movie about Julian Assange at Cannes a year ago. Her new version is even better.

Julian Assange

Peripatetic filmmaker Laura Poitras never imagined that “Risk,” her follow-up to the demanding Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” would present another set of daunting challenges. This time she’s up close and personal with controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as he gets on the phone with a lawyer in Hillary Clinton’s State Department in 2010 to alert them of a massive dump of unredacted State Department documents on his site.

READ MORE: ‘Risk’ Review: Julian Assange Gets An Unflattering Closeup From A Former Friend In New Edit

Poitras and her two cinematographers catch telling details: Assange, with dyed hair, assuming a disguise, has trouble inserting his colored contact lens. Flames lick at shredded documents in a bowl. Kirsten Johnson’s camera looks down from above on Assange emerging from a London court, surrounded by photographers and supporters. (“We were thinking of Coppola’s ‘The Conversation,'” said Poitras.) The filmmaker mounts a camera to shoot him from the back of his motorcycle as he dodges cars at top speed.

If she’s glamorizing him, it doesn’t last long. Over six years of filming, this fugitive from justice’s dramatic story presented its own tangle of ethical dilemmas. “It’s been a hard project,” Poitras admitted in our telephone interview, which may be the understatement of the year. This is the dramatic story of her struggle to finish a project years in the making, and why it took a dramatic turn.

Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky - Best Documentary Feature87th Academy Awards, Oscars, Press Room, Los Angeles, America - 22 Feb 2015

Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

Early Allies

It’s easy to see how Poitras, who after her 2010 Osama bin Laden documentary “The Oath” was on FBI watch lists, hassled and detained at airports every time she left or entered the country, would feel compelled to film Assange and his rebel band of outsiders. They made a deal: the filmmaker would have journalistic independence, but she would show Assange the film before release and listen to his notes.


“I was always a filmmaker documenting WikiLeaks, not a volunteer,” she said. “Yeah, there’s affinities, but in the middle of doing this there were also divisions. Julian compartmentalized information. He wouldn’t tell me what he was going to do. Before he went into the [Ecuadorian] embassy, I thought he might leave the country. He wasn’t going to tell me, I was filming scenes as they were happening. When he goes to his hotel room to change his appearance, I thought he was going to court that day. That was as a surprise to me. ‘Oh, okay.'”

After the debut of 25 minutes at the New York Film Festival in 2015, when Poitras was planning then-titled “Asylum” as an episodic documentary series for her documentary collective Field of Vision, she shifted to structuring a two-hour feature that played at Cannes in Directors Fortnight almost a year ago. It didn’t take long for that version to go back to the editing room as well.

Next: How Assange turned against his former ally. 

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To Anne Thompson:

It’s very unfair and manipulative to compare Julian Assange with Lance Armstrong. While Armstrong is guilty of criminal actions and deceived the public for personal gain, Assange is not guilty of anything. So why are you comparing him with a criminal ?

To Laura Poitras:

This is probably the most ungrateful and unfair behavior by a documentary filmmaker I’ve ever seen. Without the help of Mr. Appelbaum she wouldn’t have been able to even communicate with Edward Snowden. He explained TOR and all the tricks of the trade to her. Without Appelbaum there would have been no “Citizenfour”
and maybe not even a Snowden case.
I guess the original deal was, that Laura Poitras got access to everything related to the workings of WikiLeaks, but I can’t imagine that Appelbaum is O.K. with making his private sex life now suddenly a main topic of interest.
Maybe he is a dick. Maybe he’s not always nice to girls and likes to fu*k around, but so what ? Martin Luther King did the same thing & he plagiarized his dissertation, but we focus on what’s important, right?
Laura Poitras betrayed the trust of the people who gave her a very valuable access. Instead of making a film about a truly groundbreaking organization she has made a voyeuristic film about the sex life of Appelbaum?
Why is this so much more important to her?
Didn’t he satisfy you in bed?

Apart from the strange focus on the private life of Mr. Appelbaum there is actually NOTHING in this documentary that presents anything new about Julian Assange or WikiLeaks except some nice Behind-The-Scenes moments.
Laura Poitras probably knew that this wouldn’t justify a new film about WikiLeaks and therefore put in some dirty laundry to spice it up.

“Risk” is maybe the first theatrically released ‘revenge porn’ film made by an Academy Award – winner.

But this voyeuristic fun and betrayal of her former friends comes at a big price:
Who will trust Laura Poitras now in the future?

What she did is unethical and disgusting.


Anne – Assange has not been charged with any crime. The fact you couldnt even undertake some fact checking yourself before you released this drivel of an article shows your incompetence and bias as a ‘journalist’…as for Poitras, she is now done. No one will trust her and I can imagine she is now destined for B grade – at best – productions. It’s also her access that will be affected. You cant act in such an un-ethical manner and keep your reputation intact. Perhaps the DNC et al. will look after her now and can offer something for her next production…

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