Attorneys for Wikileaks have written an op-ed at Newsweek which accuses filmmaker Laura Poitras of putting Wikileaks and its staff at legal risk because of the way she used material in a new film she has produced.
Below is the trailer for the film titled “Risk.”
“The film serves to undermine WikiLeaks just as the Trump administration has announced that it intends to prosecute its journalists, editors and associates,” writes attorneys Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Deborah Hrbek, Renata Avila and Melinda Tayor. “Our first issue with Risk is that the film was edited in New York, where the raw footage can more easily be seized by the U.S. government. By moving the editing location from Berlin to the U.S., Poitras has endangered our clients and reneged on written agreements with WikiLeaks that explicitly forbid her from editing the footage in the United States.”
The team of attorney claims that Poitras “violated her unambiguous promise to the subjects of the film that they would have an opportunity to review the film in advance and request changes, and that they could decline to appear if they or their lawyers felt that the movie put them at risk.”
They go on to allege that Poitras used footage of particular subject even though she had been expressly told to leave them out.
Had the filmmaker not agreed to these express conditions, WikiLeaks’ staff would not have allowed themselves to be filmed in the first place. Despite repeated requests, neither the subjects of the film nor their attorneys were granted a prior viewing of the film that Poitras intended to release in the U.S.
Prior to its initial U.S. release, seven of the participants submitted non-consent forms to the producers advising Poitras and her team that they did not want to appear in the film. Regardless, Poitras went ahead and released it.
They then wrote that the film that Assange and his counsel viewed at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London was a completely different version of the film shown in theaters, which prevented Assange from signing off on the agreement with Poitras.
“The film viewed in the Embassy just one month prior to its U.S. release was shorn of all narration and omitted numerous new scenes, significantly changing its tenor,” the attorneys wrote. “That the “real” film contained these elements was concealed, preventing Assange from exercising his contractual rights.”
“Prior to its initial U.S. release, seven of the participants submitted non-consent forms to the producers advising Poitras and her team that they did not want to appear in the film,” they added. “Regardless, Poitras went ahead and released it.”
The attorneys wanted to make it clear that they were not engaging in censorship. Rather, their concern is over safety and professionalism.
“It is about protecting journalistic sources,” the attorneys wrote. “It is about personal and professional integrity, and honoring contractual obligations.”
The team of attorneys also expressed concern over the “way the focus of the film has been radically altered from a broadly sympathetic portrayal of WikiLeaks’ work and the attacks against its staff by the U.S. government to an ill-defined indictment of the ‘culture of sexism’ online. ”
“The difficulty we have with Poitras’s film is that she foregrounds this issue to the exclusion of others, thereby undermining WikiLeaks’ popular and political support at the very moment that it faces serious aggression from the Trump administration,” the attorneys write. “To convince the audience of her point about the prevalence of sexism, Poitras has marginalized and demeaned a number of women who work for WikiLeaks, choosing instead to give men most of the airtime and leaving scenes depicting the significant contributions of the women WikiLeaks journalists on the cutting room floor.”
“In their place, we now see an intense focus on women taking instructions and throwing off adoring looks,” they added. “Sarah Harrison, for example, a brilliant journalist and winner of the Willy Brandt prize for ‘exceptional political courage,’ who at considerable personal risk helped Edward Snowden obtain political asylum, and who was accurately portrayed as having a central role in WikiLeaks work in the Cannes version, is now depicted as little more than a minion.”
It’s not quite clear why the change in the film occurred the way it did.
“The reason for the shift seems to be contained in the newly added voiceover, in which Poitras divulges that she was involved in an intimate relationship with one of the film’s primary subjects, award-winning journalist Jacob Appelbaum,” the attorneys write.
However, after the Cannes film festival, she was criticized for being overly sympathetic to Wikileaks. She failed to disclose the nature of their relationship and said, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They’re becoming the story.”
This lead the attorneys to say that if sexism was a part of the story, it was purely the fault of Poitras for focusing on it.
“Instead of providing us with a more objective portrayal of her subject matter, she has re-framed her story to turn Risk into a film by Laura Poitras about Laura Poitras; a rather late coming-of-age story about the filmmaker discovering that there is sexism in her social and professional circles, the attorneys wrote. “Instead of a documentary about the abuse of state power and WikiLeaks’ important role in exposing it, the emphasis of the film is now to highlight hotly disputed claims about an ex-boyfriend.”
“Why choose this moment in history, when First Amendment and other fundamental rights are under attack, to undermine the credibility of an organization dedicated to government transparency and freedom of the press?” the attorneys ask.
Meanwhile, Team Trump forge ahead with charges under the US Espionage Act of 1917, which carry heavy penalties for Wikileaks.
They then conclude, “Risk might win attention for Poitras by pandering to tabloid narratives about its subjects, but it has done a great disservice to her fellow documentarians, and has profoundly betrayed her friends, her colleagues and her journalistic integrity.”
Indeed, one probably should follow Ms. Poitras’ bank account in this matter and see where it leads. Then, and only then, will Wikileaks and their attorneys find the real reason behind her betrayal of their work.