By Maya Borom
Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks promised an in-depth look into the creation and inner workings of one of the most famous media organisations in the world. Gibney, of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) fame, marketed the documentary as providing insight into an organisation that is arguably one of the most (in)famous both in terms of publication output and the almost rockstar like following of it’s Editor-in-Chief, Julian Assange.
Disappointingly, it didn’t.
We Steal Secrets chooses instead to focus increasingly on the cult of personality surrounding Assange and seemingly glosses over the importance of the collateral damage video first released by Wikileaks and the cables published after.
The aim, presumably, of the documentary was to shed light on the creation, maintenance and ongoing struggles of an organisation publishing material that placed states and governments in a precarious position publically – the publishing of the secrets that existed behind the closed doors of decision makers, military and intelligence services. Secrets that we now know included details of corruption in Kenya, paramilitary training by the US to assist the overthrow of South American governments, Guantanamo Bay standard operating procedures and video and transcripts of US forces killing unarmed civilians and journalists in Iraq.
There is an uncomfortable feeling that no one actually wants to talk about the atrocities that Wikileaks was able to catapult into the public domain…
Instead, Gibney seemingly becomes transfixed by character references of Assange. The opportunity to analyse Wikileaks’ usefulness as an organisation – one that was able to catapult serious violations of international humanitarian law into the public sphere – is lost amongst the endless parades of cameos offering insight into Assange’s personality. Yes, there is discussion of the killing of unarmed journalists in Iraq, and excerpts are shown in the film, but this is countenanced and almost trivialised by Gibney’s infatuation with the cult of Assange. The majority of the documentary appears to be about the relationship between Gibney and Assange, and Assange and every other media organisation in the world.
Little discussion is given as to the worth, in terms of human rights and international humanitarian law, of the footage and documents released by Wikileaks as evidence of war crimes and Gibney in this sense, appears to follow the majority of mainstream media outlets in ignoring the obvious and wanting to shift attention to the personality behind Wikileaks. There is an uncomfortable feeling that no one actually wants to talk about the atrocities that Wikileaks was able to catapult into the public domain and the usefulness of such an organisation in the face of increased governmental and state secrecy.
The treatment of Bradley Manning in the film is also curious, in that it bizarrely shifts its focus on him from whistleblower to a person troubled by gender issues, spending a substantial amount of time building him up as an unstable, isolated individual whose conflicting traits are somehow responsible for his actions against the state. Again, the audience needs to keep in mind that these ‘actions’ are in reality proof of conduct by a state that is against international law, but appear lost amongst the chatter of Manning’s personality.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is no in-depth expose on the Wikileaks organisation; it focuses too heavily on the cult of the personalities of both Assange and Manning to the detriment of actually providing insight into the usefulness and actions of the organisation. Gibney would have done well to focus less on personality and more on substance – the publication of footage that explicitly illustrates war crimes by a state is a topic that deserves more analysis than it received in the documentary.