Tell Me The Truth: Oscar Winner Alex Gibney on WikiLeaks And Uncovering The Story Behind The Topic

Acclaimed doc filmmaker Alex Gibney talks about his new film We Steal Secrets, the difference between a topic and a story, and making a difficult film without the cooperation of its difficult main character.

Alex Gibney is no stranger to controversy. In fact he is drawn to it. As a documentary filmmaker, his films have taken on Eliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), Enron (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Jack Abramoff (Casino Jack and the United States of Money), the Catholic church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God), and the U.S. government in his Oscar-winning film Taxi to the Dark Side about torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

In recent years, documentary filmmaking has become an increasingly compelling medium for those challenging power. While documentary makers have become particularly attracted to issues dealing with politics and social justice, Gibney stands apart in his ability to get the people at the center of those controversies to come to the table and be part of the film. Gibney’s new film, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, now in theaters, is no exception. The film profiles the rise and fall of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and provides an intimate portrait of Pvt. Bradley Manning, the man who gave WikiLeaks the video of the U.S. military’s Apache airstrike on civilians in Baghdad and more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables.

We spoke to Gibney about the process of making We Steal Secrets, and he laid out his approach to gaining access to the key players in the middle of a major story, and how you can work without that access to create a balanced and accurate film.

Getting the Interview

Alex Gibney

Gibney approaches those he wants involved in his film first with the moral argument suggesting that people need to understand the issue at hand. He further suggests that the public doesn’t understand the subject’s side of the story, and the film can help them understand. Gibney frankly acknowledges that he almost always feels more positively about someone after talking to them in person. "It becomes much harder to slam someone with whom you have some kind of personal exchange. I think it’s mutually advantageous," Gibney says. Despite the fact that Gibney’s films directly confront those at the heart of a controversy—something prospective interviewees are often well aware of—he is able to get people to agree to future projects because, above all else, his understanding with subjects is, "Tell me the truth, and I will treat your testimony fairly." For some subjects, the process of wrestling with these issues on camera can be cathartic. Gibney recalls that Eliot Spitzer quipped after one day of shooting, "Same time next week?" suggesting that in playing the role of filmmaker, Gibney was also playing the role of shrink.

Pivoting If You Don’t Get It

Gibney was hopeful Julian Assange would agree to be interviewed for the film. He even had Jemima Khan—who had put up the bond for Assange when he was arrested—in his corner as an executive producer. After months of pursuit, Gibney was summoned to meet with Assange who demanded to be paid $1 million for an interview, which Gibney refused. Assange then offered to do the interview if Gibney would report back to Assange on what other interviewees were saying. "What an odd request from the avatar of the world of transparency and truth-seeking," Gibney recalled thinking at the time, "He wanted me to behave like the CIA." Gibney held firm to his code of ethics and declined both offers, so Assange refused to be interviewed for the film.

In the end Gibney was able to secure some candid footage and interviews with Assange shot by an Australian documentary filmmaker named Mark Davis from the earlier days of WikiLeaks, which Gibney feels may have actually been more valuable because it came from a time when Assange was less guarded. Gibney did talk to all of the WikiLeaks cofounders, as well as the women who have accused Assange of rape, journalists, friends, and commanding officers of Manning, and many others who had positive and negative things to say about both Assange and Manning (government officials did not allow Gibney to interview Manning).

But securing an interviewee or a group of interviewees isn’t enough. For Gibney this comes down to the difference between a topic and a story. "The topic is: I got fired yesterday," he says, "The story is: I got fired yesterday and today I’m plotting my revenge." While having great interviews may help support a topic, it doesn’t give you a great story. You need to dig and dig for things like archival video and documentary evidence that can reinforce the arcs of individual subjects and connect them to the broader story. When he was making Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gibney didn’t have access to top Enron executives Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, so he relied heavily on archival videos, which included numerous, almost unbelievable confessions when viewed from the vantage point of hindsight. Similarly, one such piece of footage in We Steal Secrets features Assange in one of his first public appearances for WikiLeaks. Assange interrupts his cofounder’s speech when he hears something he doesn’t agree with. This foreshadows Assange’s desire to control his own image and every aspect of WikiLeaks. These are character flaws that unspool throughout the film, countervailing whatever "good" Assange is doing or trying to do (Assage would later release an edited "transcript" of Gibney’s film).

Making Sure You Are Being Fair

At the beginning of the process, Gibney thought the film would focus on Assange, but We Steal Secrets focuses more on Manning. The more Gibney and his team learned about Manning, the more interesting he became to them. Gibney stresses that you can never let an interviewee’s perspective come to dominate the film, simply because you can get access to them. "In Taxi to the Dark Side, I became very sympathetic to the guards and interrogators who led and in some cases literally murdered the taxi cab driver," Gibney recalls, "But in the cutting room, I realized that I had become too sympathetic and was unconsciously leaving out details of the brutality of what they had done." This realization came about in part after Gibney showed a cut of the film to outsiders, who helped put it in perspective. He then added key details back into the film. The lesson Gibney draws from this is that even when you think you know the story, and you think you’ve talked to everyone, in his words, "You have to keep checking, cross-checking, and doubting yourself." That principle may be the reason why interview subjects keep sitting down in front of Gibney’s camera time and time again.

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  • Gruntsvigalots

    Now I caN SEE CLEARLY WHY? Gibney slams Assange. He wouldn't allow Gibney a live interview. Such childish behavior? 
    In the article above: "Gibney frankly acknowledges that he almost always feels more positively about someone after talking to them in person. It becomes much HARDER? to slam someone with whom you have some kind of personal exchange??? I thinks it mutually advantageous".........

    ......really a 6 hour phone conversation is not enough exchange? Clearly this show Gibney to be a crass liar when it comes to being fair and balanced. The picture of him doesn't him no justice he looks like a stone-cold Blackwater merc.

  • Gruntsvigalots

    Alex Gibney's in my eyes is a turn-coat to the cause of freedom and justice by giving any amount of creditably to the Swedish charges against Julian Assange even after no charges have been filed is a best a distortion and at worst an out-right lie by Alex Gibney...I would like to know who gave you money to turn-coat on Press Freedom?

  • Arbed121

    Glad you added Wikileaks' fully sourced, annotated transcript of the film audio, which takes apart one by one the many factual inaccuracies in Gibney's hugely biased film. An example:
    To my mind, this is one of the most egregious things Alex Gibney does in this movie. When he was challenged about why he chose to show a picture of a used-looking, torn condom from the police forensics file on screen but chose NOT to tell his viewers that forensics found there was no DNA on that condom, this is what he said (he was responding to a negative review of his film):
     "There is some doubt as to what condom is pictured on screen, so it seemed pointless to add detail about dna." 

    But there is only ONE picture and only ONE condom in the police forensics report, and Gibney knows that full well if, as he claims, he's researched the Swedish case. So, yes, if Gibney shows a used-looking condom with a bloody great tear in the top then that's the one that Assange supposedly "deliberately ripped" during sex and the fact it has no trace of any DNA on it - not male, not female either - is a very big deal indeed. A very big deal. And Gibney knows it. (What was submitted to the forensics lab from the other woman is only a fragment of a condom. That does have DNA on it, but shes the one who claims he DIDNT use a condom.) It is inconceivable that Gibney can have missed the vital information that the condom he shows on screen (twice), handed in to police by the woman he interviews, has to be FAKE because a condom used for sex would be awash with DNA from two people - the photo of the condom and the no-DNA results are two pages apart in the forensics report. So much for Gibney's "balanced, fair and exhaustively researched" film. 

  • Arbed121

    Replying to ADG23 below:

    I don't think Assange is asking to be above the law - he's asking to be interviewed so he can give his side of the story. That hasn't happened yet for three out of the current four allegations. He was questioned early on about one allegation of non-sexual molestation early on, as that was the only one in existence at the time, the others having been dropped by the original prosecutor - then they created these three new allegations, didn't interview him about them despite him remaining in Sweden for five weeks, then they gave him permission to leave. THEN they change their mind and try to haul him back to Sweden with the promise of indefinite detention in a Swedish jail cell while they continue their "preliminary investigation". They have consistently refused to interview him to hear his side of the story - despite them routinely interviewing people abroad all the time (perfectly legal in Sweden, absolutely no impediment to it whatsoever) - anywhere other than a Swedish jail cell. If you were in his situation, how would you view the motives of a prosecutor who behaves like that?

    He's not running from the law, the Swedish authorities are preventing him from having due process of law.  

  • adg23

    wikileaks' "transcript" is about 1000x more biased than the film which is actually very even handed and fair to everyone involved, except maybe the US govt. you assaganistas need to get a grip and realize julian isn't a saint even if he did good things. no one is perfect, and no one is above the law. julian should have to face the music in sweden like anyone else would. why should it be any other way? and it may very well be that he is found innocent of the accusations.