Directed by Ben Lawrence
A few years back, Laura Poitras obtained unprecedented access to Julian Assange—before his arrest—for her documentary “Risk.” That movie wasn’t perfect—it seemed at times that Poitras didn’t exactly know what she wanted audiences to take away from the movie, except that Assange should be freed—but I think that access nevertheless made it a better documentary than “Ithaka,” the new film from director Ben Lawrence that follows Assange’s father John Shipton and Assange’s now-wife Stella Moris.
John Shipton would probably admit, if pressed, that he wasn’t a great father. He left Assange’s life when Julian was just a toddler, and didn’t get back in touch with him until Julian was in his 20s. But when John is asked about that period, he simply refuses to answer. In fact, director Ben Lawrence has trouble getting John to speak about a few different topics that he just doesn’t care to open up about. He’s certainly not the open book that most documentarians must look for when they’re making a movie. He’s mild-mannered but cantankerous. He also seems to worry greatly for his son. In 2019, he left his young daughter (Julian’s half-sister) in Australia to live in London to be near Julian, who was locked up in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in London. Even when fighting for Julian’s freedom leaves him feeling hopeless and exhausted, he keeps going.
Stella Moris was a member of Julian’s legal team before they started a romantic relationship, eventually having two children while he was living in London’s Ecuadorian embassy and, later, marrying while he was in prison. She’s perhaps more media savvy than John, but the movie spends more time with dad. It’s really as much his story as it is Julian’s. Without any access to Julian (we do hear his voice as he talks on the phone to Stella, but he never says very much), “Ithaka” relies heavily on John to tell Julian’s story. “Risk” is the better Assange doc, but “Ithaka” may be more thorough. It doesn’t assume much prior knowledge on the part of the audience, taking us back to the roots of Wikileaks in 2006 and briefly walking us through all the major events that led to Assange’s 2019 arrest. There’s an argument to be made that “Ithaka” might have been better off waiting for Assange’s legal battles to progress further, but then the call for action might be too late. And that’s really the point of this documentary co-produced by Julian’s brother Gabriel Shipton: to encourage people to continue (or to start) fighting for Julian Assange’s freedom. Time will tell whether this film changes any minds. As someone who has followed Assange’s case for a decade, I probably wasn’t the intended audience. For me, this story covered a lot of ground I already knew. And without access to Julian, the ability to get any additional information was too limited.