Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks divides the Frontline audience

July 2, 2013

By Alex Glynn

On Friday 28 June there was a palpable sense of anticipation among the Frontline Club audience, ahead of the preview screening of Alex Gibney’s most recent documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. The film chronicles the history of WikiLeaks and looks at the roles Bradley Manning and Julian Assange played in what was referred to as the biggest leak of state secrets in the history of the United States.

Documentary filmaker Alex Gibney and Owen Bennett Jones listen to questions from the audience. Photo: Alex Glynn

Documentary filmaker Alex Gibney and moderator Owen Bennett Jones listen to questions from the audience. Photo: Alex Glynn

Before moderator and freelance journalist Owen Bennett Jones opened the floor for audience questions, Gibney explained that he was approached to make the film and “jumped at the opportunity”. The winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side pointed out he has ‘done a number of films about events that were prominently featured in the mass media and had gone into those stories after they had occurred in order to “try to understand better what had actually happened”. On his decision to make a film about the well-known story of WikiLeaks he said:

“It seemed to me it was a very important story, a story I was very interested in. And I was interested in Julian Assange as a tremendously powerful figure – a man with a computer and a laptop setting out to expose abuses of power.”

Despite a one-year period of negotiations, Assange did not agree to be interviewed.

“When I first met Julian, I told him frankly that I was going to do the film whether he agreed to participate or not, so he didn’t like that very much. I told him I hoped he would participate. He felt that somehow he should have more control over the process.”

After the world premiere of the film, WikiLeaks released an annotated transcript of the film. Gibney explained:

“Someone had a tape recorder at a screening of the film at Sundance, tape-recorded the film and transcribed it. Unfortunately that meant that one quarter of the film was left out of the annotated transcript because, as you know from having seen the film, all of Bradley Manning’s chats are written, but not spoken.”

The annotated transcript has been updated in the meantime:

“I have read the annotations and there is not one in there that makes me feel that we were factually incorrect in any way.”

A vocal part of the audience perceived the representation of Assange in the film as unflattering, but Gibney defended his portrayal:

“I believe that we’re all entitled to an opportunity to look at the whole truth. Just because somebody tries to right a wrong, or tries to hold powerful people to account, it doesn’t mean that person is above the law, or is entitled to speak lies to power instead of truth to power. I believe this film tried to disentangle these issues.

 

“I believe there were a number of people who were giving Assange too much of a break and allowing us to believe that it’s ok to endorse the vilification of two Swedish women because we stand for transparency.”

One audience member voiced a counterweight to some of the criticism of Gibney’s portrayal of Assange, striking a cord with others in the room:

“I just wanted to say – because there have been such extremes of opinions expressed – that I came to this film with an open mind about Julian Assange and I leave with an open mind. The film just makes me want to read some more – so thank you.”

With regards to Bradley Manning, the film not only looked at his role in releasing the classified files, but also his personal background. Some in the audience felt that this may have been an unnecessary dramatic tool, but Gibney defended its inclusion as crucial to the story, saying that it’s terribly important that we do not regard whistleblowers and people of conscience – such as Manning – as superhuman, but as human beings.

“I don’t believe what the military said about Manning, that he leaked because he was troubled. I believe he leaked because he had a political conscience and he felt this material should be seen, and that he was doing a larger good. But I also think he’s a human being with flaws and in some ways deeply inspiring. I think for us to ignore that would be to end up playing into the hand of those who attempt to silence people. The idea that we need to be Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King in order to do something great [is incorrect]. I think average people can do extra ordinary things, no matter what their flaws.”

You can find further information about the film’s release dates here.