Last week Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) talked about his controversial new film, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” at the Elinor Bunin Theater in Lincoln Center during a Q&A moderated by Film Comment Magazine’s Amy Taubin.
With daily news reports that the U.S. government is spying on its own people by going through troves of phone records, e-mails, Facebook and other data in the way of digital communication, Gibney’s documentary has an added immediacy.
Incidentally, “We Steal Secrets,” from the film’s title doesn’t refer to WikiLeaks, the vastly controversial website, but from a quote in the film by General Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and the Principal Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he talked about U.S. government spies and how what they do needs to be cloaked in secrecy.
At the heart of Gibney’s documentary is the portrait of two fascinating but eccentric men: the charismatic and brilliant Aussie hacker Julian Assange, who founded WikiLeaks, and Bradley Manning, the former army intelligence analyst who uploaded classified government documents and video to the site.
Manning was arrested three years ago. His trial began last Monday behind closed doors at the Fort Meade Army Base in Maryland. Of the many charges leveled against him, the most serious is aiding the enemy or treason, which could bring him life in prison.
On June 3, the first day of Manning’s trial, Assange issued a statement in defense of Manning and in which he described Manning’s alleged mistreatment after his arrest in Baghdad, where he was kept in a cage in the sweltering heat in what many people, including Gibney, says amounted to torture.
Assange founded the not-for-profit media organization in 2007 with the stated goal of transparency in government and business by providing an anonymous drop box for whistleblowers to leak information. WikiLeaks has broken some important stories, including operating procedure at Guantanamo Bay, the banking crisis in Iceland, and the Baghdad airstrike video uploaded by Manning, in which a U.S. helicopter gunship attack killed innocent civilians along with two Reuters news staff.
Assange, who refused to be interviewed for the film unless he was paid one million dollars, is a complicated character, and Gibney reveals him warts and all. Even before the film’s release, Assange issued an annotated transcript denouncing Gibney and the documentary. Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks founder has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for nearly a year to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he has been accused of raping two women.
“We Steal Secrets” is packed with information that begins a dialogue and asks viewers to reach their own conclusions. Below are some edited highlights from the Q&A with director Alex Gibney.
Alex Gibney: Not long after the release of the State Department cables, so at a time when WikiLeaks was famous and infamous, that’s when I came into the story. And that’s when I got a call from the producer, Marc Shmuger who said, “Would you like to do this film?” and I said yes.
You have these two main characters, Julian and the more sympathetic character, Bradley Manning. How did you decide to weave those stories and reveal those characters? Because they have an arc that’s rather like you would find in a fiction movie.
I agree. To be honest, I set out to make a very different film. I thought it was going to be a film almost entirely about Julian Assange. That’s what we set out to do. The difficulty of getting him on camera, his ultimate refusal to appear on camera, actually turned out to be something of a blessing, because then I turned my gaze to Bradley Manning.
Part way through the process, a second batch of these famous chats between Bradley Manning and Adrian Lamo (the hacker who turned Manning in) were released, and suddenly it gave a much more full-bodied picture, so it seemed to me that there was an interesting relationship here. Everybody knows about these leaks because they’re the WikiLeaks leaks, but hidden was this other character, who is really a very central character to the story, and there is a relationship there.
As a matter of fact, it’s a matter of legal fact, nobody knows for sure, whether or not Bradley Manning was communicating with Julian Assange. He was communicating with somebody from WikiLeaks. He thought it was Julian Assange, but it seems like it was Julian Assange, and so that relationship became terribly important. So suddenly I got a story about a relationship between two people and then, indeed, between three people because at a certain point in time when Bradley Manning needs somebody to talk to, he doesn’t have that person to talk to at WikiLeaks. So he turns to somebody who’s a complete stranger, Adrian Lamo.
So you have these three characters playing out (this story), three characters in a way supposedly anonymous to each other, removed from each other, but exchanging all these intimate details, and that, I thought, was very powerful and interesting, making a huge difference, these three anonymous people at their computer terminals and the result of their work exploding all over the world.
The other thing is how eccentric these three characters were compared with, on one hand, the official journalists from the Guardian and the New York Times, and then the various government figures. They are really eccentric characters and they’re making it up as they go along what their particular position is vis-à-vis this information.
That’s right. To me, the way that they’re eccentric is indeed the most endearing thing about them. And then also that they’re living their lives out in two different ways: one is the lives that they’re living in a kind of immediate sense, and the other is the lives they’re living out through the vehicle of their computers.
But the idea that they would have that much impact on the world, I think, is a very powerful idea. That’s – at some point, I think James Ball (former WikiLeaks editor who now works for the Guardian), mentions it – this sort of asymmetrical relationship that now governments and corporations have more power over us than ever before, and yet all of us have, at the touch of a keystroke, a fair amount of power, as well.
Where did all the visual material come from? Were there cameras on Assange all the time? And talk about his celebrity.
There was a fair amount of footage of Assange. It wasn’t that he was filming himself, but people were filming him, and we cast a pretty wide net, from people who are videotaping these rather obscure Internet conferences to DJ’s in the disco, where he’s dancing like a kind of octopus in motion to Lady Gaga.
There’s a certain amount of key footage of Assange, prior to and just during the release of the Afghan war logs, that was taken by a filmmaker named Mark Davis from Australia, a very talented filmmaker and journalist, and I reached out to him.
I talked to a lot of people about how different Assange was just prior to his great fame. I really wanted that footage, and I’d seen some of it, and there was a lot of it that Mark hadn’t shown. So I reached out to him and he agreed to license it to me, and that was a huge move because suddenly, there was a kind of intimacy of this very critical period and also, in a way just as important, Mark saw commentary on it because he was there. Part of the deal I made with him was that I could only use the stuff that hadn’t been previously shown so long as I gave him a look at what I wanted to use and he was certain that it would be used it in its proper context.
In terms of the celebrity, I certainly knew about Assange’s celebrity almost from the get go, because he was hugely famous. Everyone was interviewing him. And also when I appeared on the stage, my executive producer, Jemima Khan, was one of the people who actually put up some of the bail money for Assange. She introduced me to his camp. By that time, his camp included a number of agents, criminal lawyers, entertainment attorneys. People were making meals, movies, books. Ultimately Assange published, maybe the only unauthorized autobiography I know of, so yes, I did know, and that became more and more potent for me in terms of the telling of the story, in terms of the arc of his character.
The film mentions Assange has four children. Is that true? Did you contact any of his family members?
We talked to his mother early on, and she was very forthcoming until Julian forbade her to talk to us and that ended that. There are at least several people we spoke to who believe Julian Assange has four children. We asked Julian to comment and he declined.
Did you get any sense of what the pressure must be like for Assange now?
I hope I communicated some of that. When you have a lot of people on television calling for Drone strikes on you, that can’t help but wear on you, not to mention Assange was treated to a lot of very vituperative invective on talk shows. But Bradley Manning is in prison, and the U.S. Government submitted him to what I think is effectively torture. That’s much worse, frankly, than what Julian Assange got.
But nevertheless, for Julian Assange, that was a tremendous amount of pressure raining down on his head, not to mention people like Joseph Lieberman going to Visa and Mastercard and having the Paywall shut down, even though there are pedophile sites that will process Visa and Mastercard payments. So, yes, the reaction to him was extreme, and I hope I showed that. Indeed I have a number of people saying Mr. Assange has blood on his hands and I repeated that trope a number of times to show them it was kind of a talking point. And yet soon thereafter, I also show the actual blood, the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was far more significant than this imagined blood. So, you know, I hope I put that in proper perspective.
The film is very clear that for a lot of people, the breaking point came over the issue of what would be redacted. Can you talk about that?
Julian always had a problem with that. From his perspective, he didn’t think that material should be redacted. He was a much more extreme person in that way, and I think in the Iraq war logs actually, in part because of James Ball, there wasn’t time to talk about this in the film, they created a computer program that actually cleaned them very effectively. So the Iraq War logs actually were absolutely clean in terms of any identifying marks of people who could be identified as possible collaborators and have revenge mete upon them.
The State Department logs were also that way in the beginning, and then Assange got very careless about handing them out and, ultimately, they leaked again because my personal view – though I don’t put it in the film – was that Assange honestly didn’t care that much about redactions. He’s more interested in leaking it all, so that became a point of contention.
I think the other point became this idea that it (redacting names) would cause corruption, which I think is very interesting from a character perspective. And I’ve seen that a lot, in a number of films that I’ve done, the idea that people feel they’re on a holy mission and that gives them the right and license to do things that they would utterly disapprove of in other people.
Do you think it’s because of a direct result of WikiLeaks that the Obama administration is making life so impossible for potential whistleblowers?
Yes, I think its part of it. I think it started before WikiLeaks, but I think it is definitely a part of it … They are definitely trying to make an example of him, and it’s worth repeating: he’s being charged with a capital offense, that is for leaking material that is far less sensitive in its classification than that which was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, who we now celebrate as a hero. So the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations in the history of America combined.
Many of Assange’s supporters used a smear campaign against the two women who accused him of rape. What do you think was his mindset?
I find it reprehensible that he did not denounce his supporters for ridiculing and rather brutally attacking those women, and, frankly, I personally believe – though I did temper it somewhat in the film – that he should have taken care of that as a personal matter. The flaw in that was associating that personal matter with WikiLeaks and trying to pretend that his misbehavior in Sweden was somehow part of the transparency agenda. In order to embrace the transparency agenda, you have to embrace the vilification of these two Swedish women.
How do you manage to get such effective interviews?
In terms of how I conduct an interview? [Laughed] I conduct an interview by asking the dumbest possible questions I can think of, and I find that’s far more useful often than asking very smart and erudite questions. Usually the interview subject takes pity on me and bestows upon me some wisdom that I might not otherwise have.
After the Q&A, I asked Gibney about Assange’s hair. We’re used to seeing Assange with long white hair but in the film, he’s got an assortment of hairdos that range from dyed brown, short, windswept and elegantly combed-back looks. It made it hard sometimes to follow the chronology. I asked Gibney what kind of filming problems it created.
“Good question,” he laughed. “It was hard for us too. It was like how do we fit him into the chronology according to which hair do he has that day. It was very difficult.” As to what he made of Assange’s different hairdos, he told me, “I don’t know what to make of it.”
The stranger-than-fiction story of WikiLeaks will next be told in a drama starring “Star Trek Into Darkness” actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch, who in his film roles has had even a wider assortment of hairstyles than Assange, will play the embattled WikiLeaks founder in “The Fifth Estate,” due out in October from DreamWorks.