We are lawyers for WikiLeaks. We are speaking out because we believe that Laura Poitras’s film Risk, released in U.S. theaters on May 5 this year, places our clients in legal jeopardy.
The film serves to undermine WikiLeaks just as the Trump administration has announced that it intends to prosecute its journalists, editors and associates.
Our first issue with Risk is that the film was edited in New York, where the raw footage can more easily be seized by the U.S. government. By moving the editing location from Berlin to the U.S., Poitras has endangered our clients and reneged on written agreements with WikiLeaks that explicitly forbid her from editing the footage in the United States.
Underscoring the menacing atmosphere, in April CIA Director Michael Pompeo dedicated his first speech to WikiLeaks and its staff, stating “They have pretended America’s First Amendment freedom shields them from justice. They may have believed that, but they’re wrong… Julian Assange has no First Amendment freedoms… It ends now.”
Poitras has also violated her unambiguous promise to the subjects of the film that they would have an opportunity to review the film in advance and request changes, and that they could decline to appear if they or their lawyers felt that the movie put them at risk.
Had the filmmaker not agreed to these express conditions, WikiLeaks’ staff would not have allowed themselves to be filmed in the first place. Despite repeated requests, neither the subjects of the film nor their attorneys were granted a prior viewing of the film that Poitras intended to release in the U.S.
When, along with the general public, we were finally able to view Risk, we were dismayed to discover that the film released in theaters is a different version, not only from that which premiered at Cannes the year before, but also from the version screened for Julian Assange and his UK counsel at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
The film viewed in the Embassy just one month prior to its U.S. release was shorn of all narration and omitted numerous new scenes, significantly changing its tenor. That the “real” film contained these elements was concealed, preventing Assange from exercising his contractual rights.
Prior to its initial U.S. release, seven of the participants submitted non-consent forms to the producers advising Poitras and her team that they did not want to appear in the film. Regardless, Poitras went ahead and released it.
To be clear: our objections are not about censorship. WikiLeaks remains an unwavering advocate for freedom of expression. This is about safety. It is about protecting journalistic sources. It is about personal and professional integrity, and honoring contractual obligations.
Our second major concern about Risk is the way the focus of the film has been radically altered from a broadly sympathetic portrayal of WikiLeaks’ work and the attacks against its staff by the U.S. government to an ill-defined indictment of the “culture of sexism” online.
As career-long feminists, activists and human rights attorneys, we are acutely aware of the existence of sexist behavior (and racism, and classism) in virtually all institutions, including left-leaning organizations.
The difficulty we have with Poitras’s film is that she foregrounds this issue to the exclusion of others, thereby undermining WikiLeaks’ popular and political support at the very moment that it faces serious aggression from the Trump administration.
To convince the audience of her point about the prevalence of sexism, Poitras has marginalized and demeaned a number of women who work for WikiLeaks, choosing instead to give men most of the airtime and leaving scenes depicting the significant contributions of the women WikiLeaks journalists on the cutting room floor.
In their place, we now see an intense focus on women taking instructions and throwing off adoring looks. Sarah Harrison, for example, a brilliant journalist and winner of the Willy Brandt prize for “exceptional political courage,” who at considerable personal risk helped Edward Snowden obtain political asylum, and who was accurately portrayed as having a central role in WikiLeaks work in the Cannes version, is now depicted as little more than a minion.
Exactly what caused this pivot is not entirely clear. No charges have been filed in the Swedish preliminary investigation of Assange, which existed long before the Cannes version of the film was released, and before Poitras even began filming WikiLeaks.
In 2016, the UN twice found that the investigation of Assange had been so flawed that his ongoing detention was illegal, arbitrary and that he should be immediately released. Poitras has dramatic footage of this legal victory, but decided not to share it with her audience.
The reason for the shift seems to be contained in the newly added voiceover, in which Poitras divulges that she was involved in an intimate relationship with one of the film’s primary subjects, award-winning journalist Jacob Appelbaum.
Appelbaum appears prominently in Poitras’ Citizenfour as well as in Risk. Although he does not work for WikiLeaks, Poitras conflates WikiLeaks with the organization he did work for, Tor, and makes him a central focus of the current version of Risk.
The Cannes premiere of Risk portrayed Appelbaum in a flattering light and Poitras did not disclose the nature of their relationship at that time. Now Poitras states, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They’re becoming the story.” But if sexism is becoming the story, it is because Poitras has chosen to focus on it.
Poitras was criticized after Cannes for appearing to be overly sympathetic to WikiLeaks. Instead of providing us with a more objective portrayal of her subject matter, she has re-framed her story to turn Risk into a film by Laura Poitras about Laura Poitras; a rather late coming-of-age story about the filmmaker discovering that there is sexism in her social and professional circles.
Instead of a documentary about the abuse of state power and WikiLeaks’ important role in exposing it, the emphasis of the film is now to highlight hotly disputed claims about an ex-boyfriend.
We have to ask: Why choose this moment in history, when First Amendment and other fundamental rights are under attack, to undermine the credibility of an organization dedicated to government transparency and freedom of the press?
Poitras is certainly aware of the political and legal context in which the release of this film is taking place. Yet the release of Risk in its new iteration exposes her subjects to considerable legal jeopardy.
This is a grave matter. The charges under the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917 that the Trump administration is working up to unleash on Wikileaks personnel carry extremely serious penalties.
We find it hard to comprehend why Poitras, who played an important role in national security journalism, has chosen to allow a dubious quest for self-discovery to undermine people working courageously to protect press freedoms.
Risk might win attention for Poitras by pandering to tabloid narratives about its subjects, but it has done a great disservice to her fellow documentarians, and has profoundly betrayed her friends, her colleagues and her journalistic integrity.
By Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Deborah Hrbek, Renata Avila and Melinda Taylor