In documentary filmmaking, as in politics, there is a trend towards the pretence of objectivity. In both camps, it is a futile exercise, upholding only a conventional sense of style and a mirage of plausibility. The idea that we can stand and look at any scenario without bias or subjective feeling is simply unreasonable.
In her documentary Risk, journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras explores an alternative attitude to truth-seeking. Her film charts six years in the life of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. We see him in public and private settings, responding to issues surrounding both his organisation and the Swedish sexual assault investigation that initially led him to seek political asylum. Poitras shows Assange’s intelligence and political principles, but also reveals his disturbing sexism and egotism.
Poitras began the film based on her belief in WikiLeaks’s crusade against political secrecy and systems of state surveillance and control. She believed in the project, so she believed in its founder. But as the film goes on, Poitras begins to reveal her personal conflict with her subject. She inserts reflective asides into the narrative, in the form of voiceovers, calling it her ‘production journal’ in which she describes her feelings, anxieties, and dreams. She also reveals her growing distrust of Assange.
Poitras’s journaling is an act of self-reflection that acknowledges uncertainty and changes of attitude in a way rarely seen in documentary film or journalism.
‘This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions… I was so wrong.’
Poitras creates a space for a doubtful human being in the director’s seat. In showing us the vulnerabilities she experienced in making Risk, she strengthens the film’s responsibility to portray the truth. Poitras shows us not just a form of documentary, but a form of work, that helps us resist the politics of control and secrecy that govern us. We ought not to pretend that we don’t have feelings. We are allowed to learn and to change our minds. The risk is much greater if we attempt to place mindless consistency above a thoughtful and informed shifting of opinion.
Risk is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Kanopy,Showtime, Vudu, and YouTube. Follow Risk on Facebook, Twitter, and the film’s website and follow Laura Poitras’s work on the Praxis Films and Field of Vision websites.
Sophie Maxwell is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield. Her work investigates the role of art and visual culture in resistance against drone warfare. She also teaches on film, and writes for One Room With A View.