Laura Poitras’s new film Risk opens May 5. It documents six years in the life of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks and controversial inhabitant of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Laura Poitras received the Oscar for Best Documentary for her previous film, Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2012. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Risk and Citizenfour are different: In Citizenfour, you are very much in the background; Risk has more of you in it. You have a voice-over where you describe your dreams and nightmares. You quote from your production diaries, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I was wrong. They are becoming the story.” How did you decide to do it that way?
Laura Poitras: I wanted to present a narrative that had complexity and contradictions, and tell the audience about some of the contradictions I was feeling when I was filming: What’s the story about? What am I filming? What’s going on? Julian has done a lot of things that are incredibly admirable; he is brilliant in many ways, and flawed in many ways. Sometimes people like to know what to think: Is this film positive or negative about Julian Assange? But what do you do when it’s both?
JW: With Julian Assange, everybody knows what they think about him before they see this film. And what everybody knows now is that Donald Trump said, “I love WikiLeaks”—probably the three most famous words ever said about WikiLeaks. A lot of people will tell you that WikiLeaks worked with the Russians to help make Donald Trump president. Did you see that as a challenge in making the film?
LP: I’m going to push back on that a little bit, and ask what evidence you have of WikiLeaks working directly with the Russian government. What’s been alleged is that the Russians used an intermediary to submit to WikiLeaks. Julian hasn’t said whether or not he knew the identity of that intermediary—he has said the source is not a state actor. WikiLeaks has an anonymous submission system, where anyone can submit information that they believe to be newsworthy. What Julian said is that he verified the authenticity of the e-mails and the newsworthiness of the e-mails. And he published them based on those criteria. Now, that doesn’t erase the larger question of whether or not other nation-states are trying to game our elections, and what to do about that. But I do think that those are separate questions, and I think there’s a sort of narrow ideological dialogue happening around this election. I think we should step back and look at what the facts are.
JW: Fair enough. And every serious publisher tries to protect confidential sources. There’s nothing unusual about that.