On the set of We Steal Secrets: The story of Wikileaks courtesy of Universal.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney and a WikiLeaks critic, who he believes is Julian Assange, have traded savage barbs over a new documentary.
As We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks began a cinema run in the US, a scathing critique of the film has been posted on the organisation's website.
Julian turned out to be a rather flawed character who ended up becoming, in a truth-telling way, all too like the organisations that he sought to expose.
In WikiLeaks' view – written as annotations to a transcript of the film – We Steal Secrets contains factual errors, misrepresentations and biased editing, covering everything from the title ("an irresponsible libel") to the damaging claim that Assange would only be interviewed if he was paid ("Julian Assange did not say the market rate for an interview with him was $1 million").
'Julian turned out ot be a rather flawed character' ... Filmmaker Alex Gibney sees Assange in a new light.
Gibney believes that, based on the way the critique refers to the WikiLeaks founder's opinions, Assange wrote it from London's Ecuadorian embassy, where he has been living for a year since the British Supreme Court ruled he should be extradited to Sweden to face accusations of sexually assaulting two women.
"One of the ways he annotates the transcript is to refer to impeccable sources, the opinions of impeccable people – ie himself – so he's referencing his own opinions," Gibney says.
The filmmaker has fired back by calling Assange's suggestion he spy on interview subjects on his behalf "reprehensible", and saying that the Australian's story has become a tragedy as he desperately manoeuvres the levers like the Wizard of Oz to maintain his image.
Gibney has directed such hard-hitting films as the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.
In We Steal Secrets, he looks at the history of WikiLeaks largely by focusing on Assange and US Army whistleblower Bradley Manning, who goes on trial next week for leaking secret war logs and diplomatic cables to the web site.
Gibney says WikiLeaks proved to be a more complicated subject than he expected.
"I thought it was a pretty simple story when I started – about a leaking machine and about a kind of David and Goliath story, in which Julian was David against the United States' Goliath," he says.
"It turned out to be not so much about a machine at all, much more about human relationships and human frailty. And Julian turned out to be a rather flawed character who ended up becoming, in a truth-telling way, all too like the organisations that he sought to expose."
With Assange supporter Jemima Khan as an executive producer, Gibney expected to be able to interview the WikiLeaks founder. But when negotiations fell through, he relied in part on footage shot by the acclaimed Australian video journalist Mark Davis.
"By the time I [started the film], Julian was surrounded by a lot of lawyers and agents and so forth," Gibney says. "He had become big business and that was kind of sad.
"I had a number of meetings with him. I went to his 40th birthday party. I had this six-hour meeting with him.
"I really did hope to persuade him to be interviewed but I think [what] Julian feels about an interview is that it's not a kind of mutual transaction, which is really surprising for somebody who runs a transparency organisation.
"His view was that he is the puppetmaster and his interviewer should protect him and convey the message that he wants to convey – it's part of his propaganda machine. That I found difficult.
"He spoke to me about a number of other negotiations with other media organisations, how magnificently he had managed to manipulate the message with them. He sees himself as the puppetmaster and I was, in this case, unwilling to be the puppet.
"But I regret not being able to interview Julian. I wish he'd had his say."
Despite WikiLeaks' denial that Assange referred to the market rate of $1 million, Gibney insists Assange asked him for money to be interviewed.
"I wasn't entirely surprised because he'd asked me for money before and I told him I wasn't going to pay him," he says. "But in a way, more disturbing was what he asked for next – in lieu of money, he said 'well, how about you spy on other interview subjects for my benefit?'
"I found that, for somebody who is so concerned about source protection ... reprehensible."
Gibney believes that rather than Assange watching the film in the embassy, his comments seem to be based on a transcript of an audio-recording, made during a screening, that misses a quarter of the film's content, including all of Manning's words.
"An audio recording wouldn't have picked up the [internet] chats from Bradley Manning [to hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported him to US authorities] because they're printed on screen," Gibney says. "They're not spoken."
On its website, WikiLeaks says neither Assange "nor anyone associated with WikiLeaks" agreed to participate in We Steal Secrets. Instead, they co-operated with a film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras, which will be out later this year. And another film, co-produced with Ken Loach's 16 Films, will be released soon.
The organisation claims Gibney's film portrays Manning's acts as a failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience and that stock footage has been heavily edited in ways that sometimes distort what was said.
"This is unprofessional and irresponsible in light of ongoing legal proceedings," WikiLeaks says. "It trivialises serious issues.
"The film implies – erroneously and when evidence is to the contrary – that Assange may be guilty of 'conspiring' with Bradley Manning. This is not only factually incorrect but also buys into the current US government position that journalists and publishers can be prosecuted as co-conspirators with their alleged sources or with whistleblowers who communicate information to them.
"This is a dangerous proposition for all journalists and media organisations — not just WikiLeaks."
Gibney says WikiLeaks' claims about his film are ridiculous.
"There are no factual errors and there is nothing misleading in the film," he says. "It [the critique] is a series of Julian's opinions.
"First of all, it's a little galling to me as a filmmaker to have people tweeting around the world about a transcript, which is, after all, an inaccurate and a very incomplete transcript because this is a film.
"It is meant to be seen as a film, not read as a transcript. We stand by everything in the film."
So what does it say about Assange if he has critiqued We Steal Secrets this way?
"He's a little bit to me like the Wizard of Oz – that moment where Toto pulls the curtain away and you see a man desperately manoeuvring the levers trying to burnish his image," Gibney says.
"It's [fitting] in a metaphorical sense that Julian, in his response, leaves out all the words of Bradley Manning. It's as though Julian wants to stay at centrestage.
"He keeps thinking about his image while Bradley Manning is about to go on trial. That's where the attention should go."
Gibney believes Assange's story has become a tragedy and that WikiLeaks' moment in history is over.
"Wikileaks and its alliance with mainstream media organisations could have really put the US government and a number of other people on notice by taking the moral high ground and really advanced the transparency agenda," he says.
"But I think that Julian's unwillingness to listen and the flaws in his character and frankly his responses to the rather vicious attacks in America all contributed to a kind of corruption of the organisation that ended up undermining that alliance, which I think could have been so effective.
"That having been said, the great thing about WikiLeaks is that it created a moment of time for everybody to work from, to get it right next time. The New Yorker magazine in the States has recently adopted an electronic dropbox for leaks ...
"So WikiLeaks doesn't have to be the only player in this arena. There are other players who can pop up in the future and maybe they can do it better."
Gibney hopes prosecutors will not succeed in having Manning jailed for life.
"The Army is trying to prove that he knowingly aided the enemy. That's a really scary charge and I think we should all be afraid if the government gets a guilty verdict. But we'll have to see what they can muster.
"It's clear that Bradley Manning leaked this material for the world to see. He's not aiding the enemy. He's [pleaded] guilty for the leaking charges.
"This is a really scary moment so I think that the trial for Bradley Manning will assume an enormous amount of metaphorical and political significance because it says something very important about not only the future of whistleblowers but the future of journalism."
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks screens at the Sydney Film Festival on June 12 and 15 then opens in cinemas on July 4.