The documentary “Ithaka” opens the Berlin Human Rights Film Festival today.
In a fair world, the documentary approach to Julian Assange from the perspective of his family did not just celebrate its German premiere today. After no distributor, no television station and no streaming provider took action, the Berlin Human Rights Film Festival of the NGO “Action Against Hunger” jumped into the gap. And so with “Ithaka” comes a really remarkable opening film, not only politically but also artistically. But in a just world, journalists don’t sit in jail and face life imprisonment for publishing unwelcome truths.
The time is over to approach the most well-known investigative journalist in the world with the interview camera. Since being held in Britain’s most stringent high-security prison, he has been largely invisible to the public. In this film, apart from archive footage, he is just a shadowy voice on the phone. In fact, in the past, even benevolent documentarists had often involuntarily played into the hands of the other side by using Assange’s appearances to prepare the media image of a thoroughly fallible self-promoter.
Produced by his brother Gabriel Shipton and directed by Australian documentary filmmaker Ben Lawrence, the film, its main narrative thread, follows the travels that John Shipton, Julian Assange’s father, has been making for years. It soon becomes clear that the fragile pensioner, who speaks in a soft voice, is pushing his limits. The eponymous Greek island of Ithaca is considered the mythical home of Odysseus. Another protagonist, Assange’s then fiancé and now wife Stella Morris, completes her own odyssey. This includes a humiliating and ultimately unsuccessful plea for the beneficiary of Assange’s leaked Hillary Clinton emails, Donald Trump.
With subtle and always moderate musical accompaniment by Brian Eno, this is on the one hand a film about the almost superhuman efforts that family love enables: Going into an increasingly dismissive public is visibly painful for those involved. In retrospect, the accusation that Assange once wanted to bask in the tabloid light seems absurd. The UN torture reporter Nils Melzer explains at the beginning how much he was influenced by the one-sided reporting that Assange wanted to hide from the (later dropped) rape allegations in the Ecuadorian embassy.
On the other hand, this is also an updated chronicle of events since Assange’s revelations about the Iraq war. Images from the cameras that were constantly monitoring him in the embassy are also shown.
It is a quiet, intimate film that should be understood not least as an alternative to the critical portrait “Risk” that Laura Poitras shot about Assange in 2016. Freedom of the press itself is being persecuted more than ever. But there is one last trump card, as Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, explains: Journalists in the USA have never been convicted of espionage. Freedom of expression has always been set higher.