(This was written a few weeks ago for “The Riverfront Times” but for a variety of reasons never made it into print.)
Directed by Laura Poitras
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press
Directed by Brian Knappenberger
As the second decade of the 21st century reached its end, something had gone askew in the way people received information. Phrases like “freedom of the press”, ‘the people’s right to know” or “Information wants to be free” had been drowned out by “fake news” and “alternate facts” and information had become a commodity, under the control of those who were willing to buy the largest share. In two new films. Documentary filmmakers try to capture an image of the changing courses of technology and information, starting with subjects you’ll recognize from headlines – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the website Gawker – and following their influence along wider paths including but by no means limited to the 2016 election.
Laura Poitras, whose award-winning film “Citizenfour” is the definitive introduction to Edward Snowden’s work as a whistleblower, began her film on Wikileaks in 2011, receiving unguarded access to Assange as he began his semi-exile in England. (Assange had been asked to return to Sweden for questioning on sexual assault charges. The charges and investigation have since been dropped, but may be re-opened). Poitras details some of the more significant revelations from the website and discusses their influence on international events, but when it comes to showing how the website is actually run, she’s at a disadvantage. You can’t really film the flow of information or distribution of documents like those released by Chelsea Manning to Wikileaks in 2010; You can’t sit Wikileaks in front of a camera, but you can film Assange, the man who has become synonymous with the website. Poitras realizes that by concentrating on Assange rather that the work, she risks sacrificing the subject to the cult of personality – which may have been Assange’s intention all along.
When Poitras first presented “Risk” at the 2016 Cannes film festival, it was seen as a largely respectful account of Assange and Wikileaks, acknowledging their achievements but mindful of the media circus that surrounds him (the film shows Assange being interviewed by Lady Gaga, who tosses questions at him without listening to his answers). Assange’s hostile reaction to the film, additional charges of sexual harassment against other members of the Wikileak projects and the website’s alleged collaboration with Russian hackers to influence the 2016 Presidential election convinced the filmmaker that something had changed, that Assange’s feuds, his egotism, his cavalier methods and the controversies around him had raised a cloud, not only obscuring the importance of what Wikileaks was doing but making it difficult for the service to function.
Poitras’ revised “Risk” includes excerpts from her production diaries in which she questions Assange’s methods, doubts her ability to get the complete story and slowly establishes a distance between the subject she thought she was filming and the one she finally recognized. That’s a damaging admission for a filmmaker, and while“Risk” still provides the clearest look at Assange on film to date, virtues as well as flaws, it adds a touch of ambiguity that leaves things unanswered. The story isn’t over yet.
We understand the risks that Assange, Snowden, Manning, and others took to go public with information. To many, a website like Gawker, which regularly trafficked in the embarrassing behavior of celebrities of Hollywood, the Beltway or Silicon Valley, was less a defender of free speech than a spoiled brat throwing water balloons at the red carpet. When the website was sued by wrestler Hulk Hogan for publishing a sex tape, the details of which are too sordid to include here, much of the mainstream media shrugged their shoulders and assumed that Nick Denton’s foul-mouthed creation was simply getting the punishment it had deserved. Brian Knappenberger’s “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” describes the fall of Gawker but makes it clear that the case had far deeper implications that a mere cage match between a declining wrestler/reality-tv celebrity and an upstart online gossip column.
The Gawker trial, which ended with a $140 million judgments and the dismantling of the website, was more than just a scuffle over paparazzi. After the verdict, it was revealed that Hogan’s legal bills were paid by Peter Thiel, an eccentric tech billionaire with a grudge against the website. As Knappenberger’s film details, the suit was the first shot in an ongoing battle against the media and the First Amendment, funded by people like Thiel and feeding off of a reservoir of anti-media resentment and campaign rhetoric. From the deliberate targeting of Gawker to the dismantling of the Las Vegas Review-Journal after it was purchased by one of its frequent subjects, Vegas investor Sheldon Adelson, “Nobody Speak” a picture of the free press being destroyed from within. Like “Risk”, it’s a cautionary tale, a work in progress. While Assange or Gawker are fighting in public, the real threat to your freedom of information is lurking in the back, looking for weaknesses and covering its tracks.