The award-winning documentary filmmaker talks secrets, leaks and the demonisation of whistleblowing.
Just when we thought we’d run out of secret information to share, they make a film about the whole bloody thing. Detailing the genesis of Julian Assange’s controversial website, LWLies met up with the ever intriguing Alex Gibney, the director of We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, to discuss what exactly inspired him to blow the top on the contentious WikiLeaks, his opinion on the Snowden case as well as his stand-off with Julian Assange and the aftermath following the release of the movie.
LWLies: Was there a particular aspect of the WikiLeaks saga that you felt wasn’t being explored?
Gibney: I didn’t know yet. I was just interested in the story and I figured if I dug in I would find something interesting.
Do the recent revelations around Prism — the US government program to collect civilian data held by internet giants — add to the discussion you’ve begun in We Steal Secrets?
It does. It’s interesting for us. In terms of making a movie or a film, we reckoned that events would play out after our film was finished — that we couldn’t wait for maybe years for the events to play out that we had to find a place to end our film and there would be a kind of poetry in the film that would reverberate through events that took place later. I have a great suspicion of films that do nothing but portray events as if it’s a kind of historical list. So we made a decision to end at a certain moment in time that seemed poignant to us and we hope will shed light on events to come.
One of the themes you explore is the isolation of the whistleblower. Has it given you any insight into what Prism whistleblower Edward Snowden might feel now?
It’s hard to project too much. We don’t ever say in the film that Bradley Manning is whistleblower archetype "No. 1A" — he’s Bradley Manning. But there’s no doubt whistleblowers have to rudder against the culture in which they’re involved. Otherwise they wouldn’t be whistleblowers and everybody would be blowing whistles. So there must be a kind of loneliness in that. It’s hard to measure yourself in that moment of time because it takes a lot of courage to come forward and to say, "I’m doing this and I’m doing this for this reason. In some way, I’m betraying the immediate culture around me for a greater good."That’s very hard.
To be honest, we all like to believe we relish the whistleblower, but I remember when I was doing press for Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, there were two questions that always came up after every screening. One of them had to do with this guy Lou Pai, who was the Enron exec who ended up getting away with it all. But the other one had to do with Sherron Watkins, the whistleblower. Inevitably the questions were meant to denigrate Sherron Watkins. "Who does she think she is that she’s so great?" There was a kind of instinctive reaction against the whistleblower for showing us all up. Like "Who the hell do they think they are? I go along. I pay my taxes." There’s something almost unnatural about it. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s terribly important and we need to figure out structures to protect and embrace whistleblowers. But I think we also have to realise the act of whistleblowing might be something we all resent because it rudders against the dominant culture.
What do you think about Julian Assange presenting himself as Edward Snowden’s spokesman?
My immediate reaction, based on nothing more than reading the news, is that this is an attempt by Julian Assange to stay in the limelight and I’m not sure it’s a good thing for WikiLeaks or for Edward Snowden. In a way the perils of that approach can be seen in We Steal Secrets. I think the great tragedy of Julian Assange is he started to play the game according to the rules laid down by the American national security state. He started to operate like a spy instead of operating like a transparency radical. Once you start playing the game of the spy, you’re going to lose because there are other spies who are better at that game than you are.
Putting a documentary together is a little bit like a cook in a kitchen. At a certain point, you lay out the ingredients and must work with what you’ve got. There were two ingredients you were missing: interviews with Assange and Manning. What was your creative process for dealing with that?
Sometimes you don’t have any meat in the kitchen so you use tofu and you make it taste like meat. Sometimes if you don’t have a certain ingredient, it makes you look for another ingredient that might be completely different but might actually taste better. That was the case with Bradley Manning. I didn’t start out to make this film about Bradley Manning much at all. But possibly because Assange was unwilling to speak — and this took place over time — we started to investigate the Bradley Manning story. And indeed we started to realise there were more ingredients in the Bradley Manning story that we didn’t know about because new chats were being released. So suddenly we had this very powerful ingredient in the kitchen and we didn’t need as much of this other ingredient.
There’s a quote from (Nobel prize-winning author) Andre Gide which is: "Art is born of constraint and dies of freedom." Sometimes constraints can make for powerful art. The fact we didn’t have access to Bradley Manning meant we relied on his chats. In some way, people say the chats are a trap. I don’t think they’re a trap. I think they’re a vehicle to understanding something about Manning, but also about understanding something very profound about who we are in the age of the internet. This idea of putting on film these written exchanges between (hacker Adrian) Lamo and Manning, I think were very powerful. It’s something we might not have captured if we had access to interview Bradley Manning. I’m not saying it would be better or worse, but it would have been different. Sometimes films go where the materials take you and in this case the chats were fantastic material and instead of trying to gussy them up, or have actors read them, we embraced the chats as the stuff and tried to find a way of presenting them visually with a graphics company so that we could play that out on screen.
One of the things you tell us in the film is Assange wanted $1m for an interview and that when you refused his counter offer was that you spy for him.
Just to be completely accurate because if you go online and see Julian’s annotated transcript, he’ll say he told me what the "market rate" for an interview with him was, but he was also asking for money. I’ve been in a lot of negotiations before and it didn’t take a lot for me to put two and two together. He never said I want a million dollars. He said the market rate for an interview with me is over a million dollars by the way I want money. Okay, I get it. You want a lot of money. But yes, the next thing he said he wanted was me to spy on the other interview subjects. A pretty surprising request from somebody that’s so impressed by source protection.
Jemima Khan is a producer on the film. She was a supporter of his and even helped post bail money for Assange. Why did she want to help make this film?
I came into this film at the beginning very much as a supporter of Assange. I was inclined to see him as the unalloyed hero of the film and she plugged me directly in to his place. I think both Jemima and I became disillusioned with the man while still remaining true to the principles that he originally espoused.
You’ve compared the response of some WikiLeaks supporters to Scientologists under attack. How have they responded?
Jemima made a comparison in a New Statesman piece. She said he might not have been Jason Bourne, he might have been more the new L Ron Hubbard. I think what she meant by that and what I meant by invoking Scientology was his followers seem to be possessed of a certain blind faith. They have denounced the film as being anti-WikiLeaks. I think that any reasonable reading of the film will not reach that conclusion. It’s sometimes critical of Assange but where is it written that if you’re critical of somebody, or some part of something that somebody does, that you’re anti-them? I saw in the criticism not reasoned responses to particular moments but a kind of irrational response that was trying to denigrate me for raising any criticism of him. That seemed more religious than rational. Julian likes to think he practices what he calls "scientific journalism." The response to the film has not been scientific at all. It’s been religious.
Has that affected the response at cinemas?
Most people who see the film go in without an agenda and I think you have to say Julian supporters have a very strong agenda and the agenda is protect Julian Assange at all costs. "The US Government is bad. Julian Assange is good. Protect Julian Assange at all costs." If people don’t go in with that agenda and go in trying to appreciate and understand the film, I think they come out with a very different perspective. First of all, a lot of people who see the film tell me they come out thinking of Julian Assange better than they did going in because they see the idealism of the man early on.
They also discover Bradley Manning as a hero, which they didn’t understand before. I’ve been gratified by most of the responses to the film. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s distressing to see the misinformation campaign. There are leaflets that are passed out in Sydney at screenings that say the film is "an assault on free speech as we know it." That’s quite a claim. I’m not sure you could really back that up.
You have a nose for headlines. You’re also wrapping up a documentary on Lance Armstrong. Initially, he was cooperating with you — has he continued to cooperate since he admitted to doping?
I’ve had a number of extended interviews with Lance Armstrong. I think I’ll leave it at that.
What qualities does a story have to have for you to dig your teeth into it?
I like mysteries. I like the mystery of cinema, but I also like mysteries in general. I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan. When I wrote a letter to (Mexican filmmaker) Luis Bunuel once and I gave him an essay that I’d written about discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. He wrote back and said this had the vibe of a Sherlock Holmes story and he said that’s not pejorative. He said, "I love Sherlock Holmes." Well, I love Sherlock Holmes too and I look at stories that have the quality of a mystery story or a detective story. Those to me are the best stories. Trying to seek out the truth but in some way that does so in an unofficial way because that’s what private eyes or detectives are. They’re unofficial truth seekers. They’re not the police, they outside the law and as Bob Dylan said "to live outside the law you must be honest."
Do you have any particular Sherlockian techniques?
I don’t see myself that much as Sherlock Holmes, I’m a little bit more like Columbo. You know shuffling along, asking dumb questions. I find that dumb questions end up getting the best answers because if you go in thinking you’re so smart and that you’re smarter than everyone else, you don’t end up learning very much. If you go in thinking: "I don’t understand this very well and I’d sure like to understand this better," you end up doing precisely that.
My language teacher once told me I wasn’t progressing as fast as I should be in terms of learning Japanese because I wasn’t willing to make mistakes. He said the only way you can learn is by making mistakes. So you go in, you’re willing to take wrong paths, you bump into walls, but you discover things along the way and that ends up being valuable to you. We’re talking about techniques, but to relate it back to We Steal Secrets, one of Assange’s great failings is he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. He thinks he doesn’t need to know any more than he already knows and so that ends up being a kind of failing for him. The best way forward in terms of making a film is knowing how little you know and how much you need to know and never losing that sense of curiosity.
What do you love about movies?
Mystery. To me, the best movies also embrace contradictions and create worlds that you want to inhabit. That’s what I really like about movies.