‘Risk’ Invites You into WikiLeaks’ Inner Circle… Somewhat

Risk documentary poster

Laura Poitras’ “Risk” is one of those documentaries which had me believing the scenes left on the cutting room floor were as, or perhaps even more, riveting as what ended up on the screen. It offers us a look into WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange, and it is a very intimate look which I was never sure we could ever get. What we get is a very compelling look at the inner workings of this organization which thrives on getting to the truth which is more often than not kept away from our prying eyes, and we see how this organization is constantly threatened by its infinitely powerful adversaries and perhaps by Assange himself. Yet at the same time, it feels like there is much more to the story than what we see onscreen.

Poitras filmed this documentary over the course of six years and was granted an astonishing amount of access to WikiLeaks and Assange. It starts off with Assange trying to get in touch with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the security of WikiLeaks has been breached to where Clinton’s emails are about to be revealed to a public eager to sift through them voraciously. Assange has been accused of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, but he is shown here to be very eager to inform Clinton of how her problems are going to be much bigger than his own.

The most introspective moments in “Risk” happen near its start as Assange talks about what drew him to the work he does today. In a talk with Poitras, he says he doesn’t believe in being a martyr as much as he does in those who take risks for the things they care deeply about. The way he sees it, it is far more dangerous to do nothing than it is to do something, and the inaction of many has certainly led people to go against their best interests for no intelligent reason.

As the documentary goes on, however, the focus of it becomes a bit muddled as Poitras admits she is not sure what to make of Assange after a while. We never see her onscreen, but she does provide narration at various points where she admits she can’t ignore the contradictions of Assange’s character and is convinced he doesn’t like her. There is a scene where he and a fellow lawyer retreat to the woods for a private conversation, and at times he urges Poitras to take her camera off of him as he shares something he doesn’t want her to know. Towards the end, she says her friendship with Assange deteriorated to the point where they were constantly yelling at each other. Taking this into account, it makes you wonder just how much access she really had to his world as he remains so close and yet so far away.

One thing which cannot be denied is the size of Assange’s ego as he confronts many obstacles and impediments with a strange confidence even while the odds are stacked against him. We can’t help but laugh at scenes where those who work closest to him exhibit an exasperation as they clearly more aware of the ramifications of his actions more than he ever bothers to. He also manages to keep Poitras and even Lady Gaga at a distance as he is questioned about his intents and of what might happen if WikiLeaks one day comes to a sudden halt.

Assange does address the sexual assault charges in how he feels the U.S. government will exploit them for the sake of turning the American people against them. Still, in her director’s statement, Poitras says there was legal and personal pressure and demands by him and his colleagues to remove scenes which deal with the sexual assault investigations, and this was further complicated by another member of his staff being accused of the same thing. “Risk” does not imply guilt on Assange’s part, but it also doesn’t prove he is innocent either. This, more than anything else, makes me wonder what was left out of the final cut. Assange appears assured that WikiLeaks can never be taken down, but it feels like his inner circle sees the dominoes falling down a lot quicker than he does.

Looking back, “Risk” is really more about Poitras than it is about Assange. We never see her face, but we do get narration from her throughout. On one hand, she has the kind of access so many others can only dream of having, but you feel her growing confusion as she continually wonders if she can ever figure this man out fully. At the end, it seems like she may never know as he becomes more and more remote to where she wonders if she has just been used to further his agenda.

Certainly, no one knows more about risk than Poitras as she has been constantly interrogated and detained by U.S. officials whenever she traveled internationally, but this has not deterred her from reporting on mass surveillance and getting Edward Snowden on camera to discuss what he knows about it. Her previous documentary, “Citizenfour,” quickly became one of the most politically potent films ever made about the power a government can have over its citizens and its quest to silence those who dissent. “Risk” finds her continuing her quest for the truth even as her main subject is at times elusive as the forces surrounding him become more determined to shut him down for good.

I wish the film had been more probing into Assange’s life as he still remains a bit of an enigma, and there will always be a cloud of distrust hanging over him until the day he dies. Still, “Risk” gives us the closest of looks at an organization which continues to expose the things your government doesn’t want you to know about. If you can get past its flaws, it is a compelling watch which will have you contemplating the future of the free press and the first amendment. It ends on an ominous note as the FBI is determined to prosecute anybody and everybody involved with WikiLeaks, and I left the theater wondering how much longer we will have the First Amendment to fall back on. Hopefully, it will never disappear, but with the Trump administration, many unthinkable things have suddenly become possible.

* * * out of * * * *

Sandy King Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘Body Bags’ at Cinefamily

Body Bags Blu-ray cover

Remember John Carpenter’s “Body Bags?” It was a horror anthology containing three stories: “The Gas Station” which has a female college student working a graveyard shift and getting terrorized by a serial killer, “Hair” about a hair transplant which goes horribly wrong, and “The Eye” where a baseball player loses an eye and gets a new one from a recently executed murderer. Many see it as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” as it featured Carpenter as a creepy-looking and deranged coroner who introduces the three stories while drinking formaldehyde as if it were a martini, and it looked like the start of a wickedly demented series. Was it meant to become a series, or was it simply intended to be a single movie? These questions were answered by Sandy King, the producer of “Body Bags” and Carpenter’s wife, when she dropped by Cinefamily which showed 1993 horror anthology as part of its Friday Night Frights series.

King told the audience Showtime originally wanted a 3-story movie and that it was supposed to be a one-shot movie for her and Carpenter. As soon as they were done, they would be off and running to their next project. King remarked how anthology movies were very hard to finance as they were typically not successful at the box office, so bringing one to a cable channel like Showtime made more sense. When it was finished, Showtime then decided they wanted to turn it into a series, but King explained why she and Carpenter decided against it.

“We shot it in California, mostly in Los Angeles, which allowed us to get a lot of the great cameos with Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman,” King said. “Showtime, however, wanted to lower the budget and shoot the series in Canada, and we felt the amount of money they were putting into was not going to be enough to get it right. Plus, shooting in Canada would have made it enormously difficult to get the cameos we got. So, we basically told Showtime thanks, but no thanks.”

“Body Bags” was in many ways a family affair as it involved King and Carpenter working with people they worked with in the past. King had previously worked with Bobby Carradine and Stacey Keach on the Walter Hill western “The Long Riders,” and she had worked with Mark Hamill as well. Peter Jason has appeared in many of Carpenter’s films, and he even used his own car for his appearance in “The Gas Station.” As for the cameos from Craven, Raimi and Corman, she reminded the audience that the horror community is a small and tightly-knit one as everyone knows each other in it.

Carpenter has never seen himself as much of an actor for those who have listened to his various commentary tracks on the movies he has done. After making a Hitchcockian cameo at the beginning of “The Fog,” felt he would be better off behind the camera instead of in front of it. Still, King said she wanted him to play the Coroner in “Body Bags” and that it actually didn’t take much to convince him. She also described Carpenter as an “inner looney” to where he allowed himself to let loose, with the help of Rick Baker’s makeup, on set. Also, Carpenter did not direct himself as the Coroner as King said a friend was brought in to handle his performance and to make sure he hit all his marks. Truth be told, casting him as the Coroner was very inspired.

King said she and Carpenter worked on “Body Bags,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Village of the Damned” all in a row. It was originally planned that Carpenter would direct all three stories in “Body Bags,” but as he was already in post-production on “In the Mouth of Madness,” she said Carpenter told her he couldn’t direct all three. To this, she replied, “Okay, we’ll get Tobe.”

The Tobe she was referring to was Tobe Hooper, director of the horror classics “Poltergeist” and the infinitely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Getting Hooper to direct “The Eye” was a bit tricky as he was very disturbed by the material which had a husband attempting to kill his pregnant wife, but King told him it would be fun and that he could make it work. She also said it was fun to watch Hooper do comedy as he had a cameo at the end with Tom Arnold in which they play two morgue workers who perhaps enjoy their jobs a little too much.

It was great fun to watch “Body Bags” on the big screen and with an audience at Cinefamily, and it was especially nice to see Sandy King drop by and talk about its making and development. She even brought some Shout Factory Blu-rays of Carpenter’s movies to give away, and this writer was lucky enough to win a copy of the one for “Body Bags.” For Carpenter fans, the Blu-ray is a must as it features a great commentary track, a wonderful making-of documentary, and a trailer for the movie as well. It had been out of print for years, and the previous DVD released by Artisan Entertainment gave us a severely edited version which took out a lot of things like Craven’s inspired cameo and some especially gruesome moments. “Body Bags” may not be epic filmmaking, but it sure is a lot of fun for horror fans.

Poster and trailer courtesy of Shout Factory.

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