For some time now I follow the discussion about “The Fifth Estate” a movie about – if you have not heard it yet – Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The controversial approach focuses on the first files WikiLeaks published and the friendship between Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
Based on the books “My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” written by the British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, Julian Assange made quite clear from the beginning that he did not approve of either – the books and the movie – and declared he feared the movie might damage his reputation. In January 2013 he spoke about a “mass propaganda attack against WikiLeaks” and read scenes from the movie script in a talk for Oxford Union.
The movie makers later declared Assange did not have the final draft of the script.
Therefore I thought it to be a clever move to publish what WikiLeaks calls the final draft of the movie in advance and describing where and why the story portrayed in the movie was wrong.
But maybe WikiLeaks should have stuck with this instead of turning his Twitter feed and publications into a constant moaning about “The Fifth Estate”. Since the first plans were made for the movie Julian Assange could not stop himself from emphasizing the way he is portrayed is not correct and intends to harm him. To say it more harshly: It is a bit like the child who declares over and over again it had not eaten the chocolate – in the end you might believe it indeed has, only because the child speaks about it a bit too often. So maybe the filmmakers did hit a mark?
Some of the things Julian Assange wrote to actor Benedict Cumberbatch on 15 January 2013 asking him not to take part in the movie sound outright paranoid. Perhaps not a surprise considering the constant pressure put upon him since publishing the first secret American government papers. Even though it was first a private letter, WikiLeaks published Assange’s letter to Cumberbatch when the opening date for “The Fifth Estate” approached. But that is perhaps something to be expected when dealing with WikiLeaks.
Thank you for trying to contact me. It is the first approach by anyone from the Dreamworks production to me or WikiLeaks.
My assistants communicated your request to me, and I have given it a lot of thought and examined your previous work, which I am fond of.
I think I would enjoy meeting you.
The bond that develops between an actor and a living subject is significant.
If the film reaches distribution we will forever be correlated in the public imagination. Our paths will be forever entwined. Each of us will be granted standing to comment on the other for many years to come and others will compare our characters and trajectories.
But I must speak directly.
I hope that you will take such directness as a mark of respect, and not as an unkindness.
I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film.
I do not believe it is going to be positive for me or the people I care about.
I believe that it is going to be overwhelmingly negative for me and the people I care about.
It is based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation.
In other circumstances this vendetta may have gone away, but our conflict with the United States government and the establishment press has created a patronage and commissioning market – powerful, if unpopular – for works and comments that are harmful to us.
There are dozens of positive books about WikiLeaks, but Dreamworks decided to base its script only on the most toxic. So toxic is the first book selected by Dreamworks that it is distributed to US military bases as a mechanism to discourage military personnel from communicating with us. Its author is publicly known to be involved in the Dreamworks production in an ongoing capacity.
Dreamworks’ second rights purchase is the next most toxic, biased book. Published and written by people we have had a bitter contractual dispute with for years, whose hostility is well known. Neither of these two books were the first to be published and there are many independent authors who have written positive or neutral books, all of whom Dreamworks ignored.
Dreamworks has based its entire production on the two most discredited books on the market.
I know the film intends to depict me and my work in a negative light.
I believe it will distort events and subtract from public understanding.
It does not seek to simplify, clarify or distil the truth, but rather it seeks to bury it.
It will resurrect and amplify defamatory stories which were long ago shown to be false.
My organisation and I are the targets of political adversary from the United States government and its closest allies.
The United States government has engaged almost every instrument of its justice and intelligence system to pursue—in its own words—a ‘whole of government’ investigation of ‘unprecedented scale and nature’ into WikiLeaks under draconian espionage laws. Our alleged sources are facing their entire lives in the US prison system. Two are already in it. Another one is detained in Sweden.
Feature films are the most powerful and insidious shapers of public perception, because they fly under the radar of conscious exclusion.
This film is going to bury good people doing good work, at exactly the time that the state is coming down on their heads.
It is going to smother the truthful version of events, at a time when the truth is most in demand.
As justification it will claim to be fiction, but it is not fiction. It is distorted truth about living people doing battle with titanic opponents. It is a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice.
It seeks to ride on the back of our work, our reputation and our struggles.
It seeks to cut our strength with weakness. To cut affection with exploitation. To cut diligence with paranoia. To cut loyalty with naivety. To cut principle with hypocrisy. And above all, to cut the truth with lies.
The film’s many distortions buttress what the prosecution will argue. Has argued. Is arguing. In my case, and in that of others. These cases will continue for years.
The studio that is producing the film is not a vulnerable or weak party.
Dreamworks’ free speech rights are not in jeopardy – ours are.
Dreamworks is an extremely wealthy organisation, with ties to powerful interests in the US government.
I must therefore question the choices and motives behind it: the opportunism, fears and mundanity; the unwritten rules of film financing and distribution in the United States; the cringe against doing something useful and brave.
I believe that you are a decent person, who would not naturally wish to harm good people in dire situations.
You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.
Not because you want to, of course you don’t, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.
Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.
I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.
Consider the consequences of your cooperation with a project that vilifies and marginalises a living political refugee to the benefit of an entrenched, corrupt and dangerous state.
Consider the consequences to people who may fall into harm because of this film.
Many will fight against history being blackwashed in this way. It is a collective history now, involving millions of people, because millions have opened their eyes as a result of our work and the attempts to destroy us.
I believe you are well intentioned but surely you can see why it is a bad idea for me to meet with you.
By meeting with you, I would validate this wretched film, and endorse the talented, but debauched, performance that the script will force you to give.
I cannot permit this film any claim to authenticity or truthfulness. In its current form it has neither, and doing so would only further aid the campaign against me.
It is contrary to my interests, and to those of my organisation, and I thank you for your offer, and what I am sure is your genuine intent, but I must, with inexpressible regret, turn it down.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to speak out against Julian Assange as a person but at the way he is handling things with a movie that is clearly intended to be a fictional approach to a real story. I think Julian Assange to be extraordinarily brave and courageous. To give up one’s own life to fight for a cause someone believes in – no matter what the costs – is something I can only admire. Freedom is essential and one of the greatest gifts we have. Security and social welfare are nothing when a society lacks freedom.
I think I know what I am speaking about since Germany twice tumbled into an oppressive dictatorial regime. While I – due to my age – have no memory of the Nazi regime, I do remember the Eastern German GDR. While growing up in Western Germany I lived near the inner German border and even as a small child found the idea horrific that people were closed in behind a wall, not allowed to travel as they liked. I have relatives in the region of the former GDR I only met after the fall of the Wall – a strange thing to suddenly play with a girl your age who is a distant cousin you had not realized did exist.
My boyfriend grew up in the GDR (Here is an article he wrote about that: https://20onemagazine.com/2013/07/05/wall-climber/) and his parents were observed by the Stasi, the secret police. I later read the file documenting their every move. The assumptions often were wrong but from the file – even though the names were blackened – you could clearly see that neighbors have reported them to the authorities, collected information in the name of an oppressive regime. Thinking about how much more a modern state with all the new technology and our openness in the world wide web can do, how much more they can (and probably will) know about you and to think what an authoritarian state can do with this information – that is an utterly terrifying thought.
That alone shows that whistle blowing and leaking secret information that threatens our freedom is a right cause.
What I do not get is why WikiLeaks starts a battle about a movie that is no threat to their or Julian Assange’s integrity at all. Since the movie has not opened yet in Germany I have not seen “The Fifth Estate” so far, so I will not allow myself to comment on the movie itself. But from the beginning I thought it quite strange that after all WikiLeaks has gained they could not simply let this movie pass. To make one’s point clear is the right thing to do, but doing so over and over again not only becomes annoying it also might have the opposite effect as WikiLeaks intended. What better publicity could the movie gain but WikiLeaks and Julian Assange constantly giving statements about it? Even bad publicity is publicity. Constantly speaking against it keeps the attention on the movie. On WikiLeaks as well, that much is clear, but I doubt in a good way. Especially since Julian Assange did not only pick up on the story line – even though Julian Assange tries to be as diplomatic and polite as possible to answer this interviewer’s question:
The actor apparently takes the criticism with a good portion of humor. When presenting the movie in New York and a phone started ringing Benedict Cumberbatch remarked: “Don’t answer it. It’s Julian, and he’s calling to tell you all not to watch!”
To make clear what a different interpretation of the move those involved and Julian Assange have, watch the latest ABC video about it. ABC spoke with actor Benedict Cumberbatch and Julian Assange as well.
Assange is on a war pace, not only attacking “The Fifth Estate” but his former media partners as well. Towards the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung (quite a morality to be found there…) he declared the media to be “corrupted” and included “The Guardian” and “The New York Times” who both once were partners in publishing WikiLeaks files.
Meanwhile WikiLeaks released a 94 min. documentary, promoting it as a counterpart to “The Fifth Estate” and a truthful approach to the work of WikiLeaks. The title: “Mediastan”, a WikiLeaks road movie.
Full movie: http://jman.tv/
What finally triggered me to write this comment was not the discussion going on for the last few days but a tweet I read this morning:
Is it necessary to turn into an Anti-Fifth-Estate twitter troll to make a point? Some tweets answering to that summon my thoughts:
After all I still ask myself what does WikiLeaks gain? Maybe with Julian Assange forced into exile at the Ecuadorian Embassy it has in the last year become too quiet around WikiLeaks with the attention focusing on Snowden, a whistle blower who first did not use WikiLeaks as a platform but with the Guardian a traditional newspaper. But then with the movie “The Fifth Estate” approaching the focus suddenly was on Assange again. And maybe fighting a senseless battle against the movie industry Assange is also part of a strategy to keep the media’s attention. And that also gives Julian Assange the chance to speak about the real threats to the freedom of humanity. To think that thought is the kind version, the not so kind one is: Julian Assange is good in dealing blows but not so good in receiving them – especially when it concerns not only the cause but him in person.
A comment by Jessica Holzhausen