The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former WikiLeaks associate, had its premiere at TIFF. It opened the festival to great media coverage. Understandably so, since the film deals with big issues: whistle-blowers, transparency, the public’s right to know, the relationship of the media to government and that of the mainstream media to upstart WikiLeaks-type rivals, all reflecting the impact of new technology. The movie opened for general distribution a couple of weeks ago but, apparently, has not attracted the same public attention as other recent releases. That is too bad. I found the movie fascinating. It is a fast-paced, high-tech depiction of the rise of WikiLeaks, and its quixotic leader, and it raises more questions than it answers.
The release of the film followed in the wake of the sentencing, on August 21st, of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning to 32 years in custody for violations of the U.S. Espionage Act. Her crime? She leaked hundreds of thousands of American military logs and diplomatic dispatches to WikiLeaks in 2010. Check out wikileaks.org for the current webpage of the organization, and also Chelsea Manning on Wikipedia for further background details.
The movie moves from one international capital to another. The juxtaposition of grandiose aspirations and a small “organization” operating on a shoestring is striking. After several more minor victories for WikiLeaks, the movie focuses on the release of the American documents, the biggest news scoop in decades, and its effect on the organization, the United States government, and the world. The relationship between Assange and his associates becomes progressively more difficult as they struggle with conflicting goals of “winning the information war” and the possibility of real harm to individuals identified by the leaks.
The movie is based on two books: Inside WikiLeaks by Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding for the Guardian newspaper. Holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to face criminal charges in Sweden, Assange says the movie is based on lies. Is Assange a folk hero? An icon of the information age? Or a terrorist, a traitor, engaged in political warfare? Is his current situation a Pentagon plot to capture him? Are all government documents fair fodder for the media? If not, what are the appropriate limits of privilege? Big questions, big issues, we each need to decide for ourselves.
To help in that enterprise, I recommend you watch the “real” Fifth Estate on CBC-TV which, on November 1st, featured Linden MacIntyre exploring “The Strange World of Julian Assange.” The show is a superb rendition of the history of WikiLeaks, and the nature of the controversy. With that as a background, you will more readily appreciate the movie. If you missed the initial broadcast, you can watch it anytime on CBC-TV‘s the fifth estate webpage.
Watermark, a high-profile Canadian production co-directed by world-famous Toronto-based photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, opened on movie screens across Canada on September 27th. I was present for its initial screening at TIFF and had high hopes for the film. An earlier film of Burtynsky photographs, Manufacturing Landscapes (2006), has won widespread acclaim. Burtynsky specializes in industrial sites, big scenes and large landscapes. His vision is dramatic, awe-inspiring, and brings beauty to the most unlikely places. His scope is international and always provocative.
Watermark uses Burtynsky’s photography to illustrate the relationship between water and man; how man has used water to impact the environment, and vice versa. Such a film is an ambitious enterprise, and no project can be comprehensive. Watermark has images showing, among other things, the effects of the Colorado River project on the uplands of Mexico and on California, the size of the Xiluodu dam in China (eight times that of the Hoover Dam in the United States), intimate details of the Hindu Kumbh Mela rituals when thirty million people bathe in the Allahabad river in one day. By way of contrast, the film shows the pristine Stikine river in northern British Columbia, and the organic view that western Canadian First Nations have of water. All these images are worth the price of admission.
As much as I liked the actual photography, I thought the film was less successful than its predecessor. At 92 minutes, I thought it dragged a little. Long, slow shots are part of Burtynsky’s modus operandi and can have enormous impact. In this screening, I thought they were over-used. As a B.C.-ite, pristine water both on the coast and in remote interior lakes, streams and rivers is in my blood. I love to look at pictures of such waters, but even I found the helicopter photography over the Stikine River unduly prolonged. I also found that the film lacked markers to help viewers understand where they were and the significance of what they were seeing. The opening sequence seems to go on forever and I missed the indication (if any) of where it was taken. The lengthy footage of the Xiluodu dam emphasized the immense size of the dam (à la Manufacturing Landscapes) rather than the relationship of its water to the countryside around it. Juxtaposing it with images of the negative effects of the American Colorado River project suggests future dangers, but are the projects analogous? I totally missed the relevance of the pictures showing Burtynsky’s German publishers producing his book. Do the printing presses require undue use of water?
Reviews of the movie which have appeared since I saw it have generally been very positive, suggesting that my observations may well be quibbles or ill-informed. Whatever, the movie will provoke all sorts of discussion. The photography is astounding and the issues of utmost importance. If you know Burtynsky’s work, you will already be planning to see the movie. If you are not, then I would urge you to do so; you will be amazed. And do check out Manufacturing Landscapes if you have not yet seen it.