Philip Alexander Gibney has never been shy of a contentious subject or two. His documentaries have tackled topics are thorny as corporate corruption (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), war crimes (Taxi To The Dark Side) and political conspiracy (Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer). Now he's getting to grips with Julian Assange, a man who could read his emails, spam his contacts list and poke his mum on Facebook, all while nonchalantly combing his lustrous blond locks. Chatting with Empire over a cup of tea in London's Soho Hotel, Gibney talked about his new documentary about Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, and explained the appeal of tennis after editing his way through footage of possible war crimes. "It can feel good to smash a ball hard."
In the best sense, Wikileaks not an easy watch... No, it's not an easy watch, and there's no instant revelation at the end where you go 'Oh, I've got it all figured out.'
Errol Morris talked about the idea that there's an objective truth in the context of The Thin Blue Line: either Randall Adams shot the policeman or he didn't. Can that idea be applied to Julian Assange? I'm not sure it quite can, but I think the search for an objective truth is pretty important. What is true? And once you stop seeking it, then you're in trouble.
It's difficult to make a documentary about a 'fabulist', I'd hazard. I don't know, sometimes it's appealing because when you live in the world of your imagination, sometimes you can come up with some fantastic stories. I think in part, that's what Julian was doing. I think he shares that with (fellow hacker) Adrian Lamo, and that can be powerful because then their lives play out like some kind of spy thriller. I think that's what happened to Julian Assange: he began to believe some of the fictions that were rattling around in his head.
Was Bradley Manning more straighforward to get to grips with? Not more straightforward but he lives less intensely in his imagination. He's a guy who wants to make a difference, both politically and personally - in his own sexuality, even.
The film includes this idea of 'noble cause corruption': that principled people can lose sight of their ideals while in a position of power. Did you consciously parallel Assange and Barack Obama in that regard? Yes, they do share that. Many Presidents share that but particularly Barack Obama because he promised us all hope and change.
Did you vote for him? I did.
Would you vote for him now? It depends on who he was running against. But in terms of national security he has betrayed us. He's used 'keeping us safe' as an excuse to undo the very things for which we're allegedly fighting. Freedom, individual rights...
There are apologies in the film from various quarters for things that you depict, especially the Apache airstrike on civilians and journalist in Baghdad in 2007 [uploaded to YouTube as 'Collateral Murder']. Were they sincere, do you think?
If you succumb to paranoia, you're doing your enemies a favour.
Well, (former NSA director) Michael Hayden didn't even say sorry. As he said about the Iraq video, that didn't trouble him at all. It troubled me. It may not have been illegal, but it was certainly troubling. [Empire: It's desensitising?] The way we fight wars now is so distant. They were firing from a place where people on the ground couldn't even see them. It's a terrifying idea. It's hard to watch, but the most disturbing part is when they fire on that van, where they're trying to take the wounded to safety.
War is like a video game now. And the drone program is the best example.
I take it you don't go home from a day's editing to play Ghosts on Xbox? (Laughs) I don't, I play tennis. It sounds like an effete game but the value to me is that I can smash a ball hard, which feels good at the end of a day. It's good as a release.
And of course, you have to sit through very difficult material like the Collateral Murder over and over again while you're editing. Right, and I went through that once before on Taxi To The Dark Side - watching torture everyday for a long, long time. It does funny things to your head.
Is there a danger of becoming desensitised? You always have to check yourself. When we were working on Taxi To The Dark Side we would purposefully not show it to certain people in the cutting room, because we would include a lot of horrible material and would need a fresh pespective. They would look at us and say, "Are you out of your minds? You can't include that!" When Margaret Bourke-White, the famous Life photographer, talked about the photographs she took of the Nazi concentration camps, she said the picture of emaciated prisoners standing by barbed wire that became famous was the one where you could see the humanity. With the most horrible ones people just shut down. You can't go so far as to make people shut down.
Was there anything in your Wikileaks research that would have changed anything about Taxi To The Dark Side? There was one thing. There was a Wikileaks cable about a US State Department attempt to shut down a German investigation of a guy named Khalid El-Masri, who'd be kidnapped in Macedonia and taken to the salt pit in Afghanistan. I interviewed Michael Hayden about it and he claimed it wasn't torture, but it was pretty brutal. Then they freed him because they'd got the guy: it wasn't al-Masri, it was el-Masri. They got it wrong. And this is a CIA operative who simply refused to realise she'd made a mistake, even after Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet of the CIA told them to let him go. They eventually put him on a road in Albania. When the Germans decided to investigate this, the State Department said "watch it". It's appalling the things that are done in our name.
Do you think it's possible that they did something similar with Sweden and the extradiction of Julian Assange? It's possible, [and] I looked into it. When I started the film I was convinced that it was a conspiracy, I just haven't found any evidence that it was. Nobody's been able to show me any evidence. If Assange had taken an HIV test, it would have been over. That's not a very good honeytrap.
Do you get paranoid working on a film like this? Sure. There was a New York Times about the grand jury investigation into Wikileaks and (Icelandic politican and poet) Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who's in the film, was quoted saying, "Paranoia will kill us all". I thought that was wise. I agreed with Hunter S. Thompson when he said "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean I don't have enemies", but if you succumb to paranoia, you're doing your enemies a favour. You have to assume you're being watched, you have to assume you're being listened to, but if you start to act like a spy, you're playing their game.
Have you been hacked? I'm sure I have, but I've never seen anything secret of mine released online. In fact, Julian (Assange) pretended he'd hacked us by releasing this annotated transcript of the film, but it turned out to have been a tape recording of a screening. We know that because the transcript left out a quarter of the film: all of Bradley Manning's chats because they weren't spoken, they were written. Whoops.
Did you realise straightaway? No, we actually missed it at first. We thought he might have pulled it off at first, then we went, "Oh my fucking god, he fucked up the transcript."
You start the documentary with an incident when NASA is infected with a computer virus, possibly originating with Assange, called 'the wankworm'. Were you worried about sniggering? Well, in America most people don't know what the word "wank" means - even the guys at NASA didn't know - but it's a great joke.
Have you had to explain the concept? We have. I said the word "wank" on the BBC breakfast show, and they had to say, "He doesn't mean that." (Laughs)
Do you think feature films have done a good job tackling the sort of subjects Wikileaks explores recently? Documentaries seem to be going through a golden age... They are, and when it comes to 'issues' feature films are pretty ham-fisted. Very often there's a moment when someone stands up, put their hands on their labels and gives a big speech about whatever the issue is. It's really nauseating. The ones that are best take it at an odd angle: films like Michael Clayton. Syriana was pretty good, if a little meandering. TV seems to be getting at it better, with something like Homeland.
You're a fan?
I admired Zero Dark Thirty in many ways but having followed the torture debate in such detail, I found their presentation of it reprehensible.
Big time. They get it right because they're getting at the paranoia and the fuck-ups that you see in organisations like that. Hollywood, though, doesn't always get the message films right. The message films that try to be message films always fail. Likewise with documentaries. The documentaries that work best are the ones that eschew a simple message for an odd angle. I found that one of the most spectacular films about the Middle East was Waltz With Bashir, or The Gatekeepers, or 5 Broken Cameras.
What about Zero Dark Thirty? I criticised the film and caused a big hue and cry. I haven't met Mark (Boal) or Kathryn (Bigelow), but I know they were pissed off about a piece I wrote for Huffington Post. I admired the film in many ways but having followed the torture debate in such detail, I found their presentation of it reprehensible. I rather liked the fact that people at the centre of the film were flawed anti-heroes and there was no lapel-holding scene, but there's a cause and effect there that I think was unwarranted: that torture provided a kernel of information that led us to Bin Laden. I'm told that there's a scene that Kathryn Bigelow shot and maybe Mark Boal wrote in which someone says, "You fucking assholes! How much bad shit information have you got from all these enhanced interrogations?" We know we got the name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed without resorting to water-boarding.
Changing tack, I know you're a big fan of Luis Buñuel. What else do you like to watch when you're not working? I like thrillers, but recently I've found the best dramas to be on television. I loved Homeland and Game Of Thrones, and I have found some pretty fucking good documentaries like Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell. I revisited McCabe & Mrs. Miller recently, and what a film that is. But I do dig a good thriller.
We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks is out now