In 2014, from the moment the credits began to roll following the first screening of Laura Poitras' Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour at the New York Film Festival, the best documentary feature Oscar race was over. How could the filmmaker possibly follow - let alone top - that doc, which wowed critics, shocked audiences and won not only an Oscar, but every other major award leading up to it?
This week, we got our answer. On April 30, Poitras' latest doc, Risk, about WikiLeaks founder and chief Julian Assange, had its New York premiere at the Whitney Museum of Art, two days after a screening in Los Angeles that was effectively its world premiere, since the version of the film that screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival bears little resemblance to this one. And, in this form, Risk is every bit the doc and awards contender that Citizenfour was.
Following Citizenfour, the unveiling of any Poitras film is going to be an event, which might explain the heavy turnout of doc-world filmmakers and tastemakers at Risk's first Big Apple screening - among them, documentarians like Liz Garbus, Alex Gibney and Matt Heineman, as well as Libby Geist, vp and executive producer of ESPN Films and ESPN's 30 for 30 docuseries. Prior to the screening, brief remarks were offered by Tom Quinn, the co-chief, with Tim League, of Neon, the new company handling Risk's theatrical distribution (it opens in 35 theaters May 4, including several in New York and Los Angeles, which will qualify it for Oscar consideration); Quinn, who is the former co-chief, with Jason Janego, of Radius, the company that handled Citizenfour's theatrical distribution, revealed that Poitras hasn't stopped working on Risk since Cannes and, in fact, tinkered with it right up until she screened it last week for him and execs from Showtime (which will air it on TV following its theatrical run).
The film itself begins with a jaw-dropper: it's amazing enough to see Poitras' camera inside Assange's tightly guarded world, but in viewing footage dating back to 2011, one realizes that Poitras had been working on Risk before, during and after Citizenfour. One of the things that made Citizenfour incredible was that people hadn't really heard much of anything from Snowden prior to the doc, but the doc itself was concentrated on just a few days in his company while he was on the run. Risk, conversely, centers around a man whose face and voice and ideas are widely known the world over - he's certainly not press-shy - but does so over seven years, several of which he spends holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, which actually results in him revealing far more about himself than even he imagined he would. During a post-screening Q&A, Poitras told me that Assange, upon being shown a rough cut of the film, severed their relationship: "We're not speaking right now. He said the film was a severe threat to his freedom and he was forced to treat it that way now."
What about this film might Assange not like? To be sure, footage that shows the unbecoming ways in which he discussed and strategized against the women whose accusations of rape caused him the legal troubles in Sweden that forced him into hiding in the first place. Additionally, footage of the extent of his narcissism and paranoia. There also are voiceover interjections by Poitras, including one where she says she grew to distrust Assange, and another revealing that Assange became jealous when she turned her attention to Snowden and refused to share with him information that Snowden had shared with her. And, on top of that, footage that chronicles bizarre behavior by some of Assange's WikiLeaks associates, from Sarah Harrison, who may or may not be his girlfriend but seems to worship him like a cult leader, to Jacob Appelbaum, who ends up being forced out of his day job and stopped cooperating with the documentary after he, too, is accused of sexual impropriety. (Poitras, to her credit, discloses in the film that she dated Appelbaum in 2014, and acknowledged during the Q&A that WikiLeaks, like many organizations, clearly has had some "fucked-up gender politics.")
But, regardless of how Assange regards the film, it is no hit-job. In its title and tone, it acknowledges and applauds the massive sacrifices and gambles that Assange and his WikiLeaks associates have made for a cause they clearly believe in. And, during the post-screening Q&A, Poitras seemed to defend Assange's WikiLeaks activities, calling the organization's leaks during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which may have helped to cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, "newsworthy," and saying in response to the Trump Administration's recent threats to bring him to justice, "He's a publisher, so I think journalists should be very concerned with things that are being said now."
When I asked her if she thought there was some sort of a secret relationship between Assange and Russia - Snowden, through Assange's help, wound up in Russia, WikiLeaks' dumps during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election seemed to benefit only the candidate who was sympathetic to Russia, and Assange has made a point of stating that the DNC leaks did not emanate from Russia when he usually doesn't know where his information comes from - she dismissed that idea. "I think Julian publishes information," she said. "If he had Trump's tax returns, we'd have seen them by now. He's not going to withhold information."