15 June 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2013, US) – Marginalising the radical


Alex Gibney’s latest documentary is not likely to be the singular filmic deconstruction of Julian Assange this year. A Hollywood production starring Benedict Cumberbatch is in the works and two other documentaries are also forthcoming, made with the co-operation of Assange. Gibney’s take on Assange is not solely about the man. He also delves into the formation of Wikileaks, Bradley Manning as a whistleblower, and the relationship between print news organisations and new gatekeepers like Assange who utilise new media as a means of spreading invaluable information in the public interest. How successful Gibney is at addressing such wider socio-political concerns is somewhat problematic given the absence of an interview with Assange (apparently impossible to secure given the demand of one million dollars by Assange). It is a near impossibility for any documentary to remain objective and this should in no way be an expectation unless a specific public remit demands so. Broomfield’s approach seems relevant here since he has declared it is the role of the documentary filmmaker to get as close as they can to the subject they are trying to explore and to do this would mean a clearer grasp of a truth. Of course, all truth is elusive and whilst most of the finest documentaries are resolutely subjective (like the work of Broomfield), Gibney’s documentary is no different but what makes it somewhat propagandist (I use that term loosely of course) is that the intentions are somewhat insincere. 

Though it is not my position/role/job to defend the reputation of Assange, Gibney’s approach cultivates a deliberately antagonistic perspective since the narrative of Wikileaks leads to the conclusion that Assange is a hypocritical political figure and suspected rapist, rendering him both irrelevant and duplicitous. This seems somewhat unfair given Assange does not speak directly to Gibney who relies greatly on the ‘creative treatment’ of stock footage to produce a narrative in which Wikileaks is positioned as a dangerous, maverick new media conduit. However, Gibney falls into the trap of replicating and reinforcing much of the conservative attacks mounted against Assange by a subservient mainstream media, of which Gibney would claim he does not belong to. Gibney directs much of his criticism and focus at Assange as a shrewd manipulator and underground desperado hungry for fame and power but contrastingly Gibney only sheepishly questions the involvement/motives of institutional newsprint organisations like The New York Times and The Guardian in the publication of sensitive, classified documents from the US government. Conflated with such obedient massaging of institutional hegemonic power is Gibney’s inability to interrogate the governmental representatives who are interviewed on camera – instead they are selectively edited to appear unthinkingly rational. Gibney desperately attempts to demythologise Assange, suggesting Manning is the actual hero since he is the one in prison.

Though Gibney wants to rewrite the public perceptions of Wikileaks and Assange by elevating Manning as a new age online liberator/martyr, his liberal intentions are underlined as dangerously counter productive to the cause of a growing resentment towards a savagely self destructive foreign policy and failed capitalist system. In his final thoughts, Gibney doesn’t even want to acknowledge the symbolic importance of Assange, preferring to deploy metaphysical imagery that isolates Wikileaks as somehow irrelevant in the face of a growing culture of anti-establishment philosophy. 

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