Saturday, April 22, 2023


Ithaka (2022) (also now up at SPLICE TODAY in slightly different form, under the title "Chronicling Julian Assange and Wikileaks."

Directed by Ben Lawrence

The new documentary Ithaka assumes viewers have a decent knowledge of Julien Assange and what has been done to him by the US and UK governments, though curious newcomers can learn the highlights, through news clips and interviews: Assange is being tried under the US Espionage Act, ostensibly for publishing classified documents—which revealed US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was back with Democrats were fine with Wikileaks, the organization Assange founded, because the war crimes were committed by the Bush Administration, back when Democrats hated Bush. What really cause the US government to go after Assange was when he published the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta, which Democrats claimed tipped the election to Trump. Lest people forget—because Americans have very short political memories—it was the Trump Administration (or, the State Department within the Trump administration) which actually went ahead with the extradition request, and the espionage charges. The Obama Administration at least knew the consequences of charging a publisher of leaked documents.

Ithaka follows both Assange’s wife Stella Assange (née Moris) but especially his father, John Shipton, as they work each do what they can to raise awareness of Assange’s situation. Viewers also see some of their daily lives, which have been disrupted ever since Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he probably would have then faced extradition to the United States. The movie doesn’t go into the nuts and bolts of the actual legal process, and in fact at the time of filming, not many journalists—or people at all—were allowed either in Belmarsh Prison in the UK, nor into the courtroom, with COVID lockdown protocols providing a convenient excuse at the time, but also because that’s the way authorities want it: Assange is not allowed to give interviews, or have a voice at all, though at times in the movie we hear bits of conversation between he and Stella.

The film could have easily focused on Stella Assange—she has a very full life taking care of their two children, helping with the legal battles, and being one of the main PR voices, but the choice to include more footage of John, Assange’s father is intentional. Early on, Stella compares John to Julian, saying that they’re a lot alike in temperament, intelligence, and humor, and—since film crews have no access to Assange—the best way to ‘see’ Julian, to learn about him, is to observe his father.

John is also a good model for the rest of us: he was not involved or interested in politics until Julian started Wikileaks, and even then not until Julian’s persecution. But in the movie he’s sharp, knows all about the political forces at work in the UK, US, Europe and Australia. He and Julian’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, a filmmaker and one of the producers, attended the screening of Ithaka I attended, in Salem, Oregon, and John Shipton impressed everyone with his insights and analysis. As the movie shows, he was a building contractor before the family troubles. He shows how, if one is motivated enough, a good understanding of world politics, and the ability to critique it, can be learned by any of us ‘normal’ working-class folks.

At the Q&A after the screening, John and Gabriel both stressed their surprising hopefulness in the strength of the people to control their governments. They cite the recent movement by some ‘progressive’ Representatives in the house calling for the Biden administration to drop any and all charges against Assange. This may feel like too little too late to some, but I understand the desire of the father of Julian Assange to want to have hope. As the movie shows, the support coming from governments around the world, including the US, is bipartisan: Libertarians and leftists are well aware what is at stake.

The most moving words John spoke at the Q&A were describing how our First Amendment, which says, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press....” is THE inspiration for other governments and human rights activists. If Assange is extradited, he will inevitably be convicted of espionage in the US, for the publishing of leaked documents demonstrating US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan—a conviction which has never happened before and which would make any journalist or news organization who uses leaked documents open to the same persecution. Which is why the five big news organizations who used the Wikileaks documents have now, finally, come around to defending Assange. Unfortunately, US propaganda is so strong that Democrats and other centrists now openly favor censoring news that doesn’t come from government-approved sources, so as to avoid ‘misinformation.’

At the time of the writing of this review, Ithaka is being screened for one-night-only events at independent cinemas, though it was officially released in the US back in November 2022. John and Gabriel are touring with the movie in the US, and Stella at some showings in Europe. The Q&A was worth staying for, as was seeing the movie in a full theatre: at times, based on the mostly mainstream media blackout about Assange and the fate of our First Amendment, one can feel a little isolated, thinking that no one cares. Being in a room full of like-minded people was a hopeful experience: at least some people care. The highlight of the night was when the movie showed an excerpt from Biden’s acceptance speech, where he praises, with a straight face, the value and importance of ‘truth.’ A woman in back yelled out, “You sit on a throne of lies!” And everyone laughed and clapped.

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