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A Review of WikiRebels, the Wikileaks documentary

This is a review of “WikiRebels”, a documentary on Wikileaks from SVT, the Swedish national broadcaster.

First let’s get something out of the way. The title, “Wikirebels”, is an embarrassment. Here we have another example of the propensity to coin neologisms by prefixing terms from IT and online culture. It is in the same vein as “cyberactivist”, “technoanarchist”, and other such monstrosities. In their defence, I should point out that this review is based on a rough cut posted on the SVT website, and the original Swedish title seems to be something different. I do not speak Swedish, so I cannot comment on whether it is better, worse, or equally terrible.

Another problem is the voiceover. It frequently strays into cliche and populism, all breathlessly delivered. Here is an example:

What we have here is a new breed of rebel. IT guerillas without a national base. Student digs, coffee bars and server rooms: these are their command and control centres.

I appreciate the necessity of making a documentary for people who do not necessarily know anything about Wikileaks, but I can’t see why in doing that they had to assume that the viewer has never even touched a computer. Again, criticisms aimed at the rough cut may not hold for the finished product. Hopefully some of the more egregious flaws will be remedied before the documentary is broadcast.

This documentary will appeal to two kinds of people: people who know nothing about Wikileaks and hardcore supporters. That is to say that it is not very substantial. People unfamiliar with the whistle-blowing website and looking to get up to speed will be well served by the hour-long portrait, while enthusiasts may be able to look past its faults. More critical viewers, meanwhile, might be frustrated by the lack of new information or insight into the inner workings of the organization.

Here is the root of the problem. Wikileaks is a clandestine group that can only do its work in secret. Julian Assange, and later Kristinn Hrafnsson, have chosen to be the public face of the organization. They are the ones willing to speak to cameras and take the considerable risks that come with media exposure. But this is supposed to be a documentary, not an interview, and the need for other talking heads and other viewpoints is filled by people who are no longer affiliated with Wikileaks or who never really were. Some of them have their own agendas. Others, such as PRQ CEO Mikael Viborg, give us an interesting glimpse into Wikileaks’s electronic infrastructure.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, aka Daniel Schmidt, features heavily. A lot of time is given to his criticism of Assange’s leadership and his new Openleaks project. It is said that Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks of his own accord due to ideological differences with Assange. It has been alleged elsewhere that his resignation followed his being suspended for unspecified misconduct. While it is true that his earlier involvement in Wikileaks makes him a useful source of information, the circumstances around his departure and the conflict of interest created by his current project mean that he could hardly be considered an impartial commentator.

The same goes from Birgitta Jonsdottir. She was heavily involved in editing the Collateral Murder video and creating and promoting the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. All this makes her a valuable witness to Wikileaks’s recent history, but her vocal opposition to Assange’s leadership and remarks she has made about him in the press cast doubt on her reliability.

But it’s not all bad. The most valuable thing reporters Jesper Huor and Bosse Lindquist have done in this documentary is to give centre stage to the Collateral Murder video. Three or four minutes of the forty-minute video are shown. They have removed everything but the tough indigestible kernel. An Apache helicopter mows down a group of unarmed men, including two Reuters employees, then engages a van driven by a father bringing his children to school who has stopped to help one of the wounded. In the context of the longer video the footage was already harrowing, but here, edited, it is a stomach-churning vomit-inducing atrocity. If Huor and Lindquist’s intention was to galvanize support for Wikileaks, which I suspect it was, this part of the documentary will do the trick.

The elephant in the room was always going to be the allegations against Assange. The documentary devotes some time to them at the end, but very few details are given. The filmmakers do not pass judgement either way. Wikileaks supporters might have hoped to see some more investigative work here, but it is undoubtedly better to avoid public speculation about an ongoing criminal investigation.

Though this documentary is a worthy effort, it feels a little out of date. Assange’s arrest is mentioned, but none of the subsequent developments. There is also very little treatment of the technological developments that have taken place since the release of the State Department cables. The problems with hosting, the mass-mirroring efforts and the recent DDoS attacks are all neglected. Perhaps this is to be expected. This documentary is the result of several months’ work, and the television production cycle is not suited to such a fast-moving story. The nimbleness of blogging, Twitter, etc., makes the internet a better arena for information and discussion in this instance. “WikiRebels” left me feeling as if traditional media are merely playing catch-up.

You can watch the documentary on SVT Play until Monday, 13 December.