In an interview with Newsweek publicizing her new film Risk—which concerns Julian Assange and WikiLeaks—Laura Poitras explained that after opening the documentary at the Cannes Film Festival last year, she had re-edited it to look at the “culture of sexism that exists not only within the hacker community but in other communities.”
Although I am a member of Assange’s legal team, Poitras’ lawyers declined to permit any of us to view the reviewed version of the film, so I cannot comment on whether she accomplished her aims.
Read more: Laura Poitras discusses new film on Julian Assange
I can, however, see that her film has succeeded in unearthing a disturbing culture of sexism concerning what it is to be female, or a feminist. In Newsweek ’s accompanying film review, which recounts a scene in which Sarah Harrison, “a pretty young woman, a journalist and acolyte” calls then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on behalf of WikiLeaks. Newsweek suggests that the scene highlights Assange’s controlling nature, the gender power imbalance within WikiLeaks (it describes the rapport between the two as “punk Don Draper and Millennial Megan,” aka the boss and his “hot” secretary) and further opines that the film demonstrates that WikiLeaks is populated by “brilliant smug jerks who don’t know how to work with women.”
Sarah Harrison—the “pretty, young acolyte”—is the investigations editor of WikiLeaks, winner of the Willy Brandt prize for “exceptional political courage,” a person whom Laura Poitras described in 2015 as “extremely intelligent and tenacious. And very motivated by her principles.” It was this same Sarah Harrison, acting for WikiLeaks, who rescued Edward Snowden from impending arrest in the United States—after Laura Poitras had left him to his fate.
But with a few snips and clips in the editing room, it appears that the film has succeeded in destroying Sarah Harrison’s agency, transforming her into a vacuous minion, while minimizing her role and achievements in the organization, and that of many other female journalists, activists and lawyers.
During a question and answer session held in conjunction with the version shown at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival—where some viewers suggested the film was too sympathetic to its subject—Poitras averred that, “I do think that mainstream media does not always represent people accurately, and I believe that this will.” That version called for Assange’s release. That version showed Sarah Harrison and American journalist Jacob Appelbaum, who has worked with WikiLeaks, to be “courageous” and inspirational. That was before the U.S. election, and the concerted attempts among some to shift blame for the loss from their own words and actions to WikiLeaks, who revealed them.
According to Newsweek’s article, Poitras says in the recent version of the film’s voiceover that she could no longer ignore the “contradictions” concerning Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I wonder, though, if Poitras has given thought to the contradictions at play in a film that claims to highlight sexism, but does so in a manner seemingly built on gender stereotypes, and that renders the work and contributions of many courageous women within the organization invisible.
We should confront and denounce sexism in all its myriad manifestations. But, as a female lawyer who has worked for Julian Assange for several years, I have no truck with this trite one-note argument that if you are a woman, you either obviously disapprove of Julian and by extension WikiLeaks (kudos, your feminist credentials remain intact), or you must be a slavish minion, who is controlled by him. This dichotomy is wrong: I have been empowered professionally through my work with Julian and WikiLeaks, while enjoying the privilege of working almost exclusively with brilliant female lawyers, in a gender ratio very rarely found.
It is also distinctly offensive to the right of all women to be considered as agents rather than objects, and to have the freedom to have their own views concerning Julian Assange. But most of all, it is completely sexist to reduce the role of the many intelligent, feisty and courageous female journalists and lawyers who work at and with WikiLeaks to the role of mere accessories and minions, or to delete them from the picture.
This one-note approach might play better in certain post-U.S. election circles but it is not the truth, and it is not a fair representation of the various individuals who work for, and with, Assange and WikiLeaks because we believe that WikiLeaks is a positive force for truth and democracy. Poitras was right in Cannes to emphasize the importance of depicting people as they are, not as we think they are, or as “mainstream media” wishes them to be. It is a pity that the film now seems to do the opposite.
Melinda Taylor is an international human rights and defense attorney who is also a member of Julian Assange's legal team.
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