2017, 87 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
Laura Poitras has long been a respected documentarian, but in 2014, she achieved a new level of fame and importance with her Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR in which she interviewed Edward Snowden as he blew the whistle on the US government. The film was history in the making and kept a secret until a few weeks before its surprise premiere at the New York Film Festival.
CITIZENFOUR was made while Poitras was a few years into making RISK, a documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that’s as unnerving and essential as CITIZENFOUR. In 2011, Poitras began interviewing Assange, continuing for multiple years. The footage is unsurprisingly jaw-dropping, with the most memorable being when Assange disguises himself and flees to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (where he remains to this day).
RISK originally premiered in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed-positive reviews. But, the story of Assange and WikiLeaks kept taking dark twists and turns, and Poitras decided to restructure and recut the film, adding new footage and information as recently as two weeks ago. As revelations about the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election were revealed, Poitras reportedly made the film less favorable to Assange and WikiLeaks.
Like CITIZENFOUR, RISK takes that which we read in the news and makes it personal. Poitras very responsibly (you’ll know why I use the word “responsibly” when you view the film) inserts herself into RISK with voiceovers, adding some much-needed commentary to the film that further distinguishes it from any others that will likely be produced about Assange.
While Poitras captured some stunning footage, Assange largely remains frustratingly elusive. We do not gain many deep insights into his thought process and don’t entirely understand him better by the film’s end. That being said, when the information and footage are this riveting, flaws like the above don't detract much from the overall film.
RISK is an important piece of work both for the questions it raises and for the historical value of its footage. Anyone with any interest in world news should not miss this film. Poitras continues to be the foremost filmmaker on docs about government whistleblowers and surveillance, and given that RISK was produced over a period of six years, one only wonders what bombshell Poitras is working on now.