LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may claim to be a champion of transparency, but when an Oscar-winning filmmaker wanted to shine a light on his rise to fame after publishing secret U.S. diplomatic cables on his website, Assange was none too pleased.
Alex Gibney set out to uncover the story behind Assange, 41, and the website he founded in 2006 to leak classified information submitted by anonymous sources, but received little cooperation from the former computer hacker.
In theaters Friday, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” explores how WikiLeaks, at its height, facilitated the publication of thousands of classified U.S. government documents, including diplomatic cables and U.S. Army logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To tell the story of WikiLeaks, Gibney sought to interview Assange but found the elusive Australian difficult to persuade, eventually deciding to film without him.
But the filmmaker spoke to Assange several times off camera, and said he came to form a picture of a complex character.
“If you catch him in unguarded moments, he can be terribly charming, self-deprecating and a really engaging human being,” Gibney told Reuters.
However, whenever Assange felt the conversation was becoming an official interview, Gibney said he became unwilling to “give me the kind of honest reflections that would have been so important (to the film),” likening him to a “human soap box.”
When Gibney decided to film the documentary without Assange’s participation, he said the WikiLeaks founder did not take the news well.
“He likens himself as the puppet master, the one who’s pulling the strings on the media. I think he took some offense at the idea that I was independent,” Gibney said, adding that Assange had, at one point, asked to be paid for participating.
“He mentioned that the market rate for an interview with him was a million dollars. I didn’t inquire what market that was,” Gibney said with a laugh.
Gibney said Assange had asked him to report what other interview subjects in the documentary were saying about him, something he found to be “highly ironic.”
“(WikiLeaks) was supposed to be a transparency organization, and he was asking me to engage with him as if we’re now some kind of espionage outfit,” he said.
Gibney, 59, has become a prolific documentarian over the past decade, garnering critical praise for his timely films such as 2005’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and 2007’s Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.”
The filmmaker was drawn to WikiLeaks initially with the idea of it being a “David and Goliath story, with Julian Assange being David,” but over the course of filming for two years, Gibney found the story of WikiLeaks to be as complex as its founder.
The timing of the film’s release couldn’t be more poignant, with U.S. Army private, Bradley Manning, 25, who is accused of leaking classified data to the WikiLeaks website, due to stand trial on June 3. He could face life imprisonment.
Unable to interview Manning for the documentary, Gibney turned to sources that included friends and former colleagues of Manning, and hacker Adrian Lamo, who gave the FBI online chatroom logs where Manning had confided that he had passed classified government information to WikiLeaks.
Gibney said he believed that while Assange had become a celebrity with WikiLeaks, Manning had become a “scapegoat.”
“There’s no doubt that (Manning) has been improperly scapegoated...he’s pled guilty to leaking. But these larger charges, these more serious charges that the government is trying to hang him with, aiding the enemy, carries a possible death sentence. To me, that’s outrageous,” Gibney said.
Gibney also turned to Australian filmmaker Mark Davis for footage of Assange before he became a headline; Davis had been following the WikiLeaks founder before the Afghanistan war-log leaks, which propelled Assange and his website into the news.
Davis’ footage captured a more candid Assange, and Gibney also found home movies from Iceland that showed the WikiLeaks found far less guarded, including a clip of him dancing.
During filming, Assange’s own story developed alongside that of WikiLeaks, culminating in him hiding out at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused by two women of rape and sexual assault.
Gibney was able to get one of the accusers, former WikiLeaks volunteer Anna, to participate in the documentary.
“(Assange) is the expert at holding others to account....but he’s never wanted anybody to hold him to account. He can’t stand anybody telling him he’s wrong, and so he is refusing to be held to account for these sex allegations in Sweden,” Gibney said.
“I think his downfall was hubris,” said Gibney. “He became reckless. He began to imagine that the transparency agenda and Julian Assange were one and the same. And that’s a very dangerous place to go.”
Although Assange has not seen the film, the WikiLeaks founder and his supporters, including journalist John Pilger and filmmaker Oliver Stone, “denounced” the documentary after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Gibney said.
“The response around criticism of Julian has been a peculiar kind of tribalism,” said Gibney. “As if somehow Julian should be above criticism or beyond the law. And I find that, in itself, troubling.”
Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Bernadette Baum