According to film producer Brenda Coughlin, an earlier version of new documentary Risk was shown to its subject, Julian Assange, last year. The WikiLeaks founder — who’s led the charge fighting for radical transparency through publishing secret documents — saw another not-quite-final version early last month. Coughlin attests she flew to the UK in April to screen it for him and two of his attorneys, spending several hours in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has exiled himself for years. In the film itself, director Laura Poitras quotes a message from Assange calling Risk “a severe threat to my freedom.”
And yet, a May 3 tweet from Assange’s account said, “What do I think of ‘Risk’? I haven’t seen it. I hear it was altered.” Assange did not respond to a request to clarify what he meant by the post. However, Melinda Taylor, one of his legal representatives, told BuzzFeed News that the version Assange and two attorneys saw last month did not include voiceover narration, which is a key element of the film now. She also said the latest screening took place on short notice — too short for Assange’s US attorneys to make it to London. Furthermore, in her view, aspects of the film violated attorney-client privilege. (In response, Coughlin pointed out, “There were no hidden cameras used in the making of Risk.”)
The documentary follows Assange from 2011 through the 2016 U.S. election; Poitras was granted unprecedented access to film him and his WikiLeaks team as they broke stories. The final, theatrical release depicts WikiLeaks as an essential journalistic enterprise, but it also deals directly with misogyny in the hacker community. Strikingly, there are scenes of Assange addressing sexual assault allegations that have been lodged against him in Sweden. In one scene in particular, he makes disparaging comments about the two women who made those allegations in 2010, which he suggests are part of a “mad feminist conspiracy.”
Speaking with BuzzFeed News, Poitras said that after those screenings for Assange, “there was pressure and demands, there are scenes that the lawyers didn’t want in the film.” Poitras said in particular that they objected to a scene where Assange talks about his accusers with his legal adviser; Taylor confirmed that his representatives protested “various scenes” in which he had conversations with his attorneys.
The filmmakers say the documentary was not substantially changed due to Assange’s or his lawyers’ opposition. “I have complete independence,” Poitras said. “That was non-negotiable.”
A different version of Risk — one that some reviewers saw as straightforwardly favorable to Assange — premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016. Poitras said Assange had problems with that cut, too. “The earlier version, there was pressure to take out scenes, and then we didn’t make changes,” Poitras said. “Julian wasn’t happy, but that’s fine.”
Shortly after the movie debuted last year, sexual misconduct allegations emerged against Jacob Appelbaum, a key side figure in the film and a former WikiLeaks associate. “We had to assess how to address that,” Poitras said of the allegations. Thus, toxic gender dynamics became more central in the final cut. “The issue became foregrounded in the film,” the director said. Coughlin added that devoting substantial time to the misconduct allegations was essential. Without it, “it’s not a film that you could ever show.”
Poitras told the Boston Globe last week that, in regard to transgressions and discriminatory comments, “you need to call them out when you see them. So that’s why I reworked the film — to not pull punches around those points.” Asked whether the earlier version of Risk pulled any punches, Poitras told BuzzFeed News it didn’t, but it had to be changed because “we felt like that was necessary, to address it. … It seemed like there was no choice.”