**** (out of five)
Laura Poitras is the most fascinating filmmaker on the planet. That’s a big claim and I stand by it. I was able to say the same thing about Michael Moore during his Bowling For Columbine / Fahrenheit 911 period. With the one-two punch of Citizenfour and now Risk, Poitras has peeled back layers of international secrecy, conspiracy, surveillance and hypocrisy, leaving me terrified.
Of course, she couldn’t do it without her subjects, Edward Snowden (Citizenfour) and Julian Assange (the subject of Risk) but it says an enormous amount that they both chose her to not only document their journeys but become complicit in them. In doing so she has become a globally vital voice, a filmmaker of absolute influence, with the CIA, FBI and other files to prove it. She is an enemy of the United States so that we may bear witness to its intrusions.
Citizenfour was her immediate revelation – her camera was rolling in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room as his whistle blew, and the world wondered who the hell he was – while Risk is her epic, spanning a shooting period from 2006 to, well, perhaps last week (like so many political documentaries right now, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate moment to end on except to cut to a black screen with updated white text and let you rush out to plan your child’s safety). There is an astonishing moment where the two films directly intersect – where Assange watches the Snowden affair blow up on television, and then we cut to the interior of Snowden’s hotel room from Citizenfour – that cements her unbelievable abilities as a global witness.
We see all of Assange’s lairs intimately – including daily life at the estate in Norfolk and, fascinatingly, his living situation within the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His room is tiny and he works out in a bathroom. Any images we may have had in our head – of hotel-like conditions – are blasted to smithereens. It is not an enviable existence. We hear Assange candidly on the “Swedish situation”, including a jaw-dropping session with his lawyer as they discuss the two women who brought charges against him. And we are led to at least a strong hypothesis of the relationship between Assange and his brilliant 2IC, Sarah Harrison, who emerges – for this critic at least – as heroic.
Assange is pissed off at the film and Poitras, and WikiLeaks’ lawyers are suing her, claiming – among other things – that she has put Assange, Harrison and others in serious jeopardy by editing the film (or re-editing the film, after a screening in Cannes in 2016) in New York City rather than the contractually-agreed-upon Berlin (where Poitras lives in self-exile for her own safety). This dispute invades the film itself and gives it the feeling of being a living document, something that may be altered again. This is, in itself, electrifying. But there is another revelation in the film – a deeply personal one about Poitras – that shakes the relationship of filmmaker to film even more distressingly. It is sensational and disturbing, but it has only deepened my understanding of Poitras. She may seem able to be in two countries at once; she may be single-handedly using film to reveal the depths of the United States’ security malfeasance; but she is also unalterably human and prey to the weakness of the species.
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