Saturday, 16 March 2024 12:06

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange

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The Trust Fall: Julian Assange

Brett Gregory interviews the director of The Trust Fall: Julian Assange, and reviews the film

Kym Staton appears on screen, tired. In the little Zoom box in front of me he is sitting at a table in a little box room in a hotel with his head a little bowed. He is the Australian director and producer of the 2023 documentary, The Trust Fall, a 126 minute rumination on the 15 year political evisceration of the journalist, activist and WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who has been indicted under the 1917 US Espionage Act and incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison in London since 2019.

I am sure that releasing this film in the UK in the wake of Assange’s final appeal at the Supreme Court on February 20-21, amidst cacophonous coverage from the international media, seemed like a good idea at the time.

After Staton’s twenty minutes with The Daily Star, it is my turn. I ask what inspired him to produce the documentary. 

‘In 2010 I was watching the news in my living room,’ he replies, ‘and I was absolutely shocked to see 12 civilians, including two journalists, being shot dead on a street in Baghdad by a US Army helicopter.

‘Seven or eight years later I started to explore some films about Assange and WikiLeaks, and I started to make sense of it all. It just happened that three years ago I had some spare time to make a documentary. I’m an Australian and Assange is an Australian citizen who’s just a few years older than me, and I really admire his bravery, his striving for peace and truth.’

The coarse black-and-white footage filmed from the POV of a circling US Apache gunship in 2007 – subsequently disclosed to WikiLeaks by whistleblower, Chelsea Manning – forms the centrepiece of ‘The Trust Fall’, providing undeniable, demented and damning evidence of the US military’s febrile ferocity during its operations in Iraq.

‘What the US government didn’t bank on,’ Staton continues, ‘was that we were going to dredge up this footage, enhance it and make it even more shocking and more powerful by putting it on a screen for an audience, eliciting all kinds of emotive elements that would make grown men cry.’

The segment is called ‘Collateral Murder’, and I ask where he acquired the footage.

‘It’s freely available on the Sunshine Press YouTube channel,’ he informs me. ‘It’s been there since 2010 but it’s only had a couple of million views. This shows you that YouTube hasn’t taken it off their platform, but they’re definitely stopping it from circulating, and perhaps that’s why only 5% of the world’s population has seen it.

‘Plus there is the never-seen-before footage of the 10-year-old boy who was a victim of that incident.’

He is referring to Sajad Sattar Mutashar who, along with his father, was gunned down by the Apache crew as they attempted to rescue some of the wounded from off the street. While his father was killed, Sajad survived and, during an archive interview featured in the documentary, the boy lifts up his t-shirt, in tears, to reveal a scar rising up from his stomach to his sternum.

I point out that there are far-reaching issues at stake in The Trust Fall which, ominously, are critical to the future direction of Western democracy, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and governmental accountability.

I then ask if he has any plans to produce a follow-up documentary, regardless of whether Julian Assange is extradited to the US or not?

‘Well, this film was such a laborious process I wouldn't be surprised if I never make one again,’ he confesses. ‘It just stretched me to my absolute limits. I'm not a career documentary-maker, I'm a musician in fact; and once this is all finished I'd quite happily go back to my singer/song writing adventures and take things easy. But certainly, with this project, with this cause and this campaign, I won't stop until Julian is free.’

And with that my time is up.

‘We’ll be in touch,’ the PR tells me, and the little Zoom box goes black. I remain at my desk, however, and ponder Australia. There are twenty or so screenings of the documentary taking place there throughout March, and I imagine the ways in which it will be received differently than in the UK.

Al Jazeera reported that a motion had been proposed in the Australian Parliament by MP Andrew Wilkie on February 15th and, in response, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese argued that the Australian government had a duty to lobby for its citizens and that he had raised the issue ‘at the highest levels’ in Britain and the US. ‘This thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely,’ he said.

Of course, from the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, there has been nothing. Nothing but silence.

Lacking discipline, deftness and definitiveness

With regards to the documentary itself, as well as the accomplished publicity campaign which accompanies it, I find it admirable that the team has managed, amidst a mediated milieu of animosity and apathy, to strongarm Julian Assange’s sorrowful saga of persecution and imprisonment into the public eye.

Allied with the leaked footage of the US military’s multi-million dollar drive-by shooting of twelve Iraqi civilians, it is hoped that the audiences the film connects with will rightfully and rigorously reflect upon the war crimes which their superiors commit, and the whistleblowers they condemn, in their name. Whether or not they choose to act upon the results of such reflection, however, is another matter.

Unfortunately, as a cinematic construction, the production does not deliver the stylistic or narrative discipline, deftness or definitiveness which such high-profile political subject matter deserves. The music cues are often immodest, the editing inelegant, and the unrestrained use of still photographs somewhat undermines our understanding of cinema as ‘the art of the moving image’.

The production’s aesthetic endeavours are sadly exacerbated by a parallel animated narrative running throughout which aims to illustrate and dramatise Assange’s ordeal. However, this is not needed: the wide array of political, legal and intellectual talking-heads, interspersed with footage harvested from online sources, serves this purpose effectively enough. Thus, instead of humanising a blighted man on our behalf, we are instead distracted from him.

Furthermore, the running time of the documentary is too long and should have been restricted to about 90 minutes, so it would be more accessible to a wider and younger audience. For instance, probably due to their international reputations as purveyors of peace and justice, the late journalist and documentarian, John Pilger, and the writer and activist, Tariq Ali, are somewhat overused and, inevitably, their political points begin to grow repetitive.

In the denouement of the documentary, we are also met by multiple emotive endings, an act of authorial indiscipline which subverts the clear, compelling and conclusive call-to-action which a political production of this type requires.

In short, this film’s heart is firmly in the right place, but its head sometimes is not.

The Trust Fall: Julian Assange is released in selected UK cinemas from March 15th 2024.

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