With his long limbs, feline good looks, signature white mane, and Scarlet Pimpernel reputation, Julian Assange would attract the attention of any filmmaker (or young woman apparently). After seeing the dreadful “The Fifth Estate”, I decided to say something about it as well as five other films focused on the Wikileaks saga. In effect, Assange and Wikileaks are practically synonymous (with supporting roles by Bradley Channing and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the Judas Iscariot upon whose tell-all book “The Fifth Estate” is based.) After providing something of a consumer’s guide to what is out there filmically, I will conclude with some thoughts on his meteoric rise and ignominious fall.
Before doing that, I want to say a few things about my own connection to computers and radical politics. Using the name Mendax back in 1989, the 18-year-old Julian Assange was hacking into military computer networks with his Commodore 64 computer and a dial-up modem. At that time, I was 44 years old and the president of the board of Tecnica, a technical aid project that was sending hundreds of volunteers to Nicaragua in order to train Sandinista government workers in database, spreadsheets, and other microcomputer applications. Eventually we began working with the African National Congress, implementing an encrypted communications link between party headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia and their Mission to the United Nations. That year Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, and I visited the Cuban Mission to the U.N. to discuss possibly expanding the project into Cuba. After a couple of more contacts and some promising first steps, we became the target of an FBI fishing expedition that claimed we were part of an espionage network sending high technology to the USSR via Nicaragua and Cuba. None of this was true. The purpose of the FBI visits to workplaces of returned volunteers was to intimidate them and future volunteers from having anything to do with Nicaragua. Ultimately the organization collapsed because the Nicaraguan revolution collapsed. In any case, I have a strong identification with the Wikileaks project even though we were pursuing different strategies.
1. The Fifth Estate—a narrative film with a reactionary agenda.
“The Fifth Estate” is a throwback to vintage anti-Communist films of the 1950s with their customarily ruthless, fanatical, and megalomaniac villains—the kind who are capable of saying things like “the future belongs to us, you pathetic fool”. In fact just a decade earlier the same kind of character showed up in Hollywood movies but brandishing a swastika rather than a hammer-and-sickle. You’ll be reminded most of all of the 1955 “My Son John”, with its arrogant and intellectual lead character who returns from a visit to the USSR with a glassy-eyed belief in the superiority of Communism. By contrast, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played ironically by Daniel Brühl, the star of “Goodbye Lenin”, an exercise in Ostalgia) is much more in tune with reality and always clashing with Assange (played by an actor with the thoroughly Dickensian moniker Benedict Cumberbatch).
A pivotal scene demonstrates the contrast between Assange and Domschiet-Berg who is his second in command at Wikileaks. It is late at night and Domschiet-Berg is ready to have sex with Anke, his wife, when there’s a knock at the door. It is Assange bursting with excitement over a leaked report that documents American war crimes. His wife gives him a look as if to say, why are we putting up with this geek? He shrugs his shoulders sheepishly, obviously more intent on love than war. Coitus interruptus apparently trumps belli interruptus in Domscheit-Berg’s world.
Back in the 60s, elderly liberals like Max Lerner used to lecture student radicals about how they were really angry at their fathers rather than the war, as if hating napalm attacks on peasant villages was a symptom of an unresolved Oedipal Complex. You get the same kind of pop psychology in “The Fifth Estate” with frequent allusions to Assange’s unhappy childhood and examples of what appears to be severe antisocial behavior. For example, when Domscheit-Berg’s parents unexpectedly invite Assange to their house for dinner, he is surprised to see him graciously accept. But during dinner, after excusing himself to go to the bathroom, he just walks out the back door leaving them in the lurch. No attempt is made to explain his behavior. We are just expected to view him as capable of anything, including the killing of people named in the reports leaked by Manning who have collaborated with the Americans.
In a scene that is calculated to prejudice you against Assange, you see a Libyan opponent of Gaddafi who was named in a report barely escaping with his life—or so it would seem. This has no connection to the actual tensions between Assange and his mainstream media partners in the Wikileaks publication but is just introduced for melodramatic effect. The Libyan, a family man with a good job in the state oil industry that any American can identify with, is someone that Assange would have sacrificed for the Higher Mission. It is classic anti-Communist propaganda, even if Assange’s ideology is not so easy to pin down.
The Wikileaks website has material dealing with this film as well as others. I found Assange’s letter to the actor who played him quite eloquent:
You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.
Not because you want to, of course you don’t, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.
Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.
I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.
Consider the consequences of your cooperation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state.
Consider the consequences to people who may fall into harm because of this film.
Many will fight against history being blackwashed in this way. It is a collective history now, involving millions of people, because millions have opened their eyes as a result of our work and the attempts to destroy us.
I believe you are well intentioned but surely you can see why it is a bad idea for me to meet with you.
2. We Steal Secrets—a hostile documentary by a treacherous liberal
With films like “Taxi to the Dark Side”, a documentary on an Afghan cabdriver beaten to death by American soldiers while in custody, to his credit, one might have assumed that Alex Gibney would be the ideal candidate for something on Wikileaks.
While the film is useful in demonstrating the kinds of abuses that led Assange to form Wikileaks and Private Bradley Manning to turn over material that sickened him surely as much as the killing of a cabdriver sickened Gibney, the last thirty minutes or so is an exercise in finger-pointing at Wikileaks’s failure to protect the innocent like the Libyan in “The Fifth Estate” and Assange’s personality and political flaws—mostly in line with Domscheit-Berg’s venomous book.
The best thing you can say about it is that it is a competent work with tip-top production values and never a dull moment.
Despite Gibney’s efforts to put himself on the side of those appalled by American war crimes, he lets his real feelings slip out toward the end of the film after Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. What hypocrisy, Gibney asserts. This is a government that is widely considered to be corrupt and that has put hampers on the media. Of course, anybody who has studied Venezuela and Ecuador understands that private newspapers and televisions have broken laws in their efforts to topple democratically elected presidents not favored by the rich and the American State Department.
A June 25, 2013 Counterpunch article by Adam Chimienti took up the question of the alleged hypocrisy.
One of the issues that NGOs and journalists have cited in their litany of complaints about Ecuador’s endangered freedom of the press actually stems from the 2010 police and military uprising. During the chaos that ensued during the alleged coup attempt, one reporter from the paper of record in Guayaquil took the opportunity to claim that Correa had ordered police to fire on a crowd of innocent onlookers caught up in the melee, presumably aiming to provoke anti-government sentiments. The claim turned out to be completely unsubstantiated. The government fined the journalist and his paper El Universo some $40 million for defamation but later withdrew the charges. Consider what might have happened in the US if the Los Angeles Times or Washington Post would have falsely claimed that Barack Obama had personally ordered military or police forces to fire on a crowd of protesters and innocent people were injured as a result somewhere in Washington, D.C It would be difficult to imagine a reporter and his editors ever committing such a stupid move, but if they had, there would have been some serious consequences. Alas, this is not really too shocking in the context of a sensationalist Latin American press.
“We Steal Secrets” can be rented as a DVD from Netflix or online from Amazon.com for $3.99
3. WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies—another documentary with an axe to grind
Made by the Guardian for Channel 4 in Britain, this can best be described as “We Steal Secrets”-lite. It reflects the tensions that existed between the British paper well known for its liberal politics and willingness to challenge limits on press freedom and its one-time partner who went a bridge too far. About the best thing that can be said about it is that is free in the Youtube video above.
I can only urge you to read Wikileaks’s statement on the documentary, which is really quite damning.
The brunt of the criticism has to do with the role of David Leigh serving as consultant on the film. Leigh, who was the investigations executive editor at the Guardian, has it in for Assange. Their differences have a lot to do with interpretations of Assange’s stance on released documents from Afghanistan that supposedly would include the names of collaborators even if they were to be killed as a result. Since this is one of the biggest controversies in the Assange legacy, as well as the rape charges, I will deal with this at some length in the conclusion to this article.
4. Mediastan—a “road movie” with Wikileaks reps trying to persuade sleazy editors to publish their material
This witty and ingratiating 94-minute documentary produced by Julian Assange can be watched after paying a modest fee of $2.99 at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/mediastan. It consists of a group of volunteers making a sales pitch to various editors in the compromised newly independent republics of the former Soviet empire followed by a fascinating tête-à-tête with the NY Times’s Bill Keller. It is tough to figure out who is tawdrier, the guy who runs Turkestan’s de facto state newspaper or Keller.
There’s also a meeting with the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger, who is put on the defensive about the supposedly envelop-pushing stance on whistle blowing. When he offers a bland assurance that redaction should only take place to defend the lives of the innocent, he is asked why mafia gangsters’ names are also blacked out.
Keller is a sight to behold. There was always a tension between Wikileaks and the NY Times. Keller understood that the leaks would sell newspapers, but at the expense of the reputation of the national security state. Although the statement is completely apocryphal, Lenin’s observation that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them” rings true.
5. Julian Assange – A Modern Day Hero? Inside The World Of WikiLeaks—a cinéma vérité take on Wikileaks
This 175-minute film directed by A.N. Other is best understood as a resource rather than a finely honed documentary marketed commercially. It can be rented from Amazon for $7.95 and recommended mostly for people committed to understanding Julian Assange and the Wikileaks story in depth—people like us in other words.
The last 20 minutes or so consists of Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg fielding questions from an audience. There is little doubt that Domscheit-Berg was an important figure in the organization—such as it was—and even more so how much of a traitor he became.
6. Underground: The Julian Assange Story—an Australian narrative film in the spirit of “The Young Abe Lincoln”.
This is an Australian narrative film that can also be rented from Amazon.com. It is basically a cat-and-mouse detective story in the spirit of “War Games” with Julian Assange playing the same sort of role played by Matthew Broderick—a teenage hacker trying to gain entrance to the military computer network. In “War Games” the drama revolved around trying to prevent a nuclear war with the USSR that Broderick would trigger due to a misunderstanding.
The drama in Underground consists of the 18 year old Assange trying to elude the Australian cops while he is in the process of ferreting out Pentagon reports admitting what amounts to war crimes in the first Gulf war.
The film also depicts Assange fathering his first child with almost negligible understanding of the responsibilities that would ensue. Assange is on record as recommending the film, ostensibly on the basis of the politics but—perhaps—on the basis of his conduct with women as well.
As is the case with the films mentioned above, this too can be watched on Amazon. I should add that a Prime membership with Amazon allows a discount on rentals for many flicks that are only available as DVD’s from Netflix. Yes, I know, Jeff Bezos is a scumbag but what can you do?
Concluding thoughts on Julian Assange
The redaction controversy
Except for the last film considered above that ends long before Wikileaks was created, the question of redacting (deleting in plain language) the names of Afghan civilians was paramount. It was supposedly Assange’s decision to release unredacted documents that led to Domscheit-Berg’s break with the group.
It is not an easy task to keep track of the debate through the film medium. There are a few points, however, that must be stressed:
–When Wikileaks asked the Pentagon for assistance in identifying the names of Afghanis or Iraqis who needed to be protected, it refused. When it also asked Amnesty International for assistance, it too refused. Going through tens of thousands of documents to manually remove such names was simply beyond the capability of a volunteer staff.
–There was a group of 15,000 documents that were far more sensitive with respect to the identification of informants. Wikileaks agreed to not publish them.
–Finding a guide to this tortured tale is not easy but I obviously would consider Glenn Greenwald a reliable source. His Salon.com articles on Wikileaks are the best place to go, especially an article titled “Facts and myths in the WikiLeaks/Guardian saga” that states:
Despite the fault fairly assigned to WikiLeaks, one point should be absolutely clear: there was nothing intentional about WikiLeaks’ publication of the cables in unredacted form. They ultimately had no choice. Ever since WikiLekas was widely criticized (including by me) for publishing Afghan War documents without redacting the names of some sources (though much blame also lay with the U.S. Government for rebuffing its request for redaction advice), the group has been meticulous about protecting the identity of innocents. The New York Times‘ Scott Shane today describes “efforts by WikiLeaks and journalists to remove the names of vulnerable people in repressive countries” in subsequent releases; indeed, WikiLeaks ”used software to remove proper names from Iraq war documents and worked with news organizations to redact the cables.” After that Afghan release, the group has demonstrated a serious, diligent commitment to avoiding pointless exposure of innocent people — certainly far more care than the U.S. Government took in safeguarding these documents.
The rape charges
In some ways the incidents in Sweden were destined to happen due to the political/existential character of Julian Assange. As someone with a rock star persona who lived practically out of a suitcase bouncing from one country to another, it was virtually impossible to sustain a stable, monogamous relationship. What’s more, he was apparently into “one-night stands” of the sort that rock musicians cultivate. So in a sense, the house arrest at the Ecuadorian embassy was preordained.
In terms of the divisions on the left about how Assange should have been treated—with some insisting that he be deported to Sweden straightaway and others calling him the victim of a CIA “honey trap”—I think that Richard Seymour got it right:
This is surely not that difficult an issue, yet I’ve never seen an issue so divisive on the Left, since the last issue that was this divisive. On the face of it, the difficulty arises from an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is: it is surely quite possible to take these rape allegations against Assange seriously, and not participate in typical patriarchal denigration of women reporting rape, while at the same time taking the US threat to Assange seriously and supporting efforts to resist that. If this needs to be expressed in a concrete demand, then the demand should be for the Swedish prosecutors to facilitate justice – which will not be served by Assange’s extradition to the US – by arranging a safe way for him to answer police questions, where he doesn’t risk being abducted. That would be best both for Assange and for his accusers. See? It isn’t hard. Yet the polarised reactions almost seem to suggest there’s an impossible dilemma at stake.
Bad election preferences
It should be clear from everything written so far that I consider Julian Assange to be a figure of major historical importance even if he made some unwise decisions when it came to personal relations (leaving aside the question of what actually happened in the Swedish bedrooms).
However, I have been dismayed by recent decisions by the Wikileaks “movement”—such as it is. In Australia, when the Wikileaks Party ran in the last election, it cut some deals that smacked of smoke-filled rooms rather than the idealism of Assange’s youth. In an article titled “Principles should determine preferences” Greenleft Weekly reported on the strange bedfellows Wikileaks made. The term “preferenced” alludes to a system that allows you to pick first, second, and third choices, etc. If a party does not get elected, its votes get channeled to other parties based on the indicated preferences :
In NSW [New South Wales], the WikiLeaks Party preferenced neo-fascist Australia First, anti-feminist Non-Custodial Parents Party, and the far-right Shooters and Fishers ahead of actively pro-WikiLeaks parties including the Greens and the Socialist Alliance.
In Victoria the WikiLeaks Party also preferenced right-wing parties such as the Fishing and Lifestyle Party, Smokers Rights and the pro-business lobby Building Australia Party, ahead of the Greens.
The preferences have led to a crisis in the party with a long-time friend and ally of Assange resigning.
The future of whistleblowing
One suspects that Wikileaks represents its past rather than its future. The fact that Edward Snowden went to Glenn Greenwald rather than Wikileaks tells you that past controversies have damaged its reputation beyond repair. However, there is also little doubt that without the example of Wikileaks, Snowden never would have come forward.
I also suspect that in some ways—obviously impossible to prove—the NSA’s vast reach into our email and phone calls are a reflection of the government’s determination to control the flow of information. As commentators have pointed out, al-Qaeda has little to fear from the NSA since their communications are completely off the grid. Nor does the average beer-swilling, football watching man or woman have much to fear as well. Even though the NSA has access to their phone calls and email, it is unlikely that Joe Sixpack will be sent off to Guantanamo for rooting for the New York Jets.
Isn’t it possible, however, that the NSA’s real target is people like Edward Snowden who relied on encryption technology that might eventually prove useless against an intrusive NSA that has every email provider serving as a co-conspirator against those who want to step forward to expose government crimes? Even if someone like Snowden was willing to risk arrest, wouldn’t an enhanced surveillance have put him out of business long before he connected with Greenwald?
Probably, there will come a time when hand-delivered and hand-written letters on paper will become crucial links connecting one revolutionary to another. That’s one good reason that the dead trees legacy must be preserved.