‘Risk’ Director Laura Poitras on WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and US Election: ‘It’s Pretty Bleak’

Cannes 2016: Oscar-winning documentarian ends her new film with a tape recording of an FBI agent calling her “anti-U.S.”

Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras; photo by Getty Images

“So tell me what you’re doing,” said Laura Poitras as soon as she sat down to talk at the Cannes Film Festival. Her interest in getting some details before doing her first Cannes interview with the American press is perhaps understandable: She is understandably cautious after 10 years of reporting on the aftermath of 9/11 and the rise of surveillance in the U.S. that has produced four documentary features, one Academy Award, a thick FBI file and dozens of cases of being detained when she’s tried to enter the country.

Her new film, “Risk,” which premiered at Cannes on Thursday, is a look at WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange, who currently lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He’ll be arrested if he leaves the premises, and potentially extradited to the United States to stand trial for his role in publishing secret U.S. documents.

The film is closely linked to Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning doc “Citizenfour,” which arose from communication she received from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden while working on an earlier version of a WikiLeaks film. TheWrap spoke to her between an early-morning screening and the official evening premiere.

How close is this to the movie you started out to make before you took the Edward Snowden detour to make “Citizenfour?”
It’s very different, in the sense that there are still repercussions of that three years later. [WikiLeaks staffers] Jacob Applebaum and Sarah Harrison now can’t go back to their home countries because they helped Snowden find asylum. It would have been a different film if I hadn’t been interrupted, both in terms of what happened and in how I looked at the material.

But it was it clear when you finished “Citizenfour” that you would go back and continue the movie about WikiLeaks and government surveillance?
Yeah, yeah. But I went back into it thinking that maybe it would be a multi-part movie with a chapter structure. The material lent itself to that, and also I was interested in working in different kind of ways. I liked the idea of not being able to cut scenes so short. Like, the opening scene, which has this amazing footage between the State Department and Julian and Sarah — I was able to let that play out in a dramatic way, which would have been kind of impossible in a traditional structure. I’m not sure how I would have cut that down to a three-minute scene.

To me, doing chapters was great. Documentary filmmaking is always about time compression, unless you’re looking at Andy Warhol’s films, where the whole point is that there’s no time compression. But I really liked being able to allow things to be less compressed.

It also allows you to have marvelous moments like a video interview of Assange conducted by Lady Gaga, of all people. She’s trying to get him to talk about his feelings, and he says, “I’m not a normal person. Why does it matter how I feel?” As a director who’s trying to make a movie about this guy and his company, did you ever wish he was more forthcoming than that?
You learn a lot about him. That’s a pretty insightful exchange between them. And the truth is, he does have nerves of steel. You can’t be in this situation without being able to keep control of your emotions, and I think that kind of comes through in this interview.

I’ve probably never seen anybody under such tense circumstances for such a prolonged period of time, with so many really powerful adversaries who really hate him. And yet he stays focused on the work.

When you’re dealing with chapters instead of a three-act structure, how do you decide when to stop and how to end it?
We just had to make some choices. It felt right to end it on a contemporary update that also had this audio recording that was leaked to me from the FBI. So all of a sudden the FBI was narrating the movie.

And talking about you. How do you feel when you hear a tape of an FBI agent calling you “a documentary filmmaker who is anti-U.S.”?
It’s great. It’s great material. And also, my lawyer has it too, so he’ll use it. I have an ongoing lawsuit with the government to get my FBI file, so it’s very useful material.

But what about a potential audience member who might think, “Wait a minute, the FBI says she’s anti-U.S.”?
I invite the audience to make their own decisions. The audiotape is the government’s perspective on the work that I do, and the government’s perspective on Edward Snowden.

Given the candidates in the upcoming presidential election, do you think that there is any hope in a change in government outlook toward Assange, Snowden and surveillance?
It’s pretty bleak. It’s pretty bleak, given both candidates. [Pause] That’s about it.

You mentioned your lawsuit against the government. What is its current status?
I’m trying to get my FBI file, to find out why I’ve been stopped so much when I enter the country. That is an ongoing lawsuit. We’ve received about 1,000 documents, not all FBI, but different agencies, and we’re now contesting some of the redactions to try and understand why this investigation was undertaken.

The documents that we have seen are heavily, heavily redacted. I do know that there was a grand jury investigation into me, I know that it was terrorism-related and I know that my records were subpoenaed, but I don’t know what records were subpoenaed. Because of all the redactions, it’s hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

You’re not automatically detained when you enter the country anymore, are you?
I’m still flagged, but I’m just not stopped. But I don’t want to give the impression that just because I’m not automatically stopped, it’s a happy ending and it’s OK. This ongoing investigation into a publisher is not OK.