EXB goes behind the scenes of one of the hottest political documentaries of the moment – Ithaka. The film, which premiered at Berlin’s Human Rights Film Festival, will be screened as a special one-off at our monthly film rendez-vous at Lichtblick Kino. We caught up with producer Gabriel Shipton.
You and Julian share the same dad, John Shipton, but we understand from the film that you didn’t grow up together. When did you meet for the first time?
I was in my late teens – maybe 16, 17. He was studying Mathematics at the University of Melbourne. I lived in Sydney, and he would come up to do some things at the University of New South Wales and stay with me or our dad, John.
You’re a good decade his junior. How did it feel to have an IT genius as a brother… Did you look up to him?
He was 11 years older and as a younger sibling I admired him. I read the book Underground, which was about the early activism he did in his teens. After that I certainly looked up to him. It was just cool to connect with my brother at that point.
Did you follow his work? WikiLeaks was created in 2006, right?
Yes. When WikiLeaks was first created, it was a sort of curiosity to me, and I followed it all the way through, obviously. It was Julian’s thing and we were hearing about it from him. It was a bit obscure at the time, but sort of important to those different communities. But really, I realised how powerful WikiLeaks – or what Julian created – was when they published the corruption report on the Kenyan government in 2007.
The Kenya corruption report was one of Wikileaks’ first major global scoops, later exposed in The Guardian. It got Julian’s global attention and even some journalism rewards and accolades… What happened then?
At that time, Julian was in Kenya and, well, some of his friends were murdered because of this publication. (Two lawyers involved in investigating the extrajudicial killings were later killed). But then the government in Kenya changed because of this publication…
I went to see Julian in prison with my dad… It was a shock: I left that day feeling I might never see him again.
So, that’s how you realised the impact of your brother’s work, but also the risks?
Well, it made me realise the price of bringing this kind of information to people. This knowledge could help them make decisions about their life, about their government; but of course this kind of knowledge was really threatening for governments who were willing to do whatever it took to hide these things – even kill people. It was at that point that we understood the power of this uncensorable website – a website that didn’t use the traditional filters of the old media.
I guess at that time you never suspected that the US could become as threatening and vindictive as the Kenyan government back then.
Let’s say I was always sceptical of any government. But it was at that point that we realised that WikiLeaks was this powerful tool… And then obviously 2010 came around and that’s when it went stratospheric – like, totally out of this world.
You mean, when WikiLeaks posted that video of a US Apache helicopter firing and killing 18 people – including two Reuters journalists – in Baghdad. Do you remember what happened when ‘Collateral Murder’ became viral? Did you discuss it at home with your dad?
Yeah, we discussed it. Do I remember? No, I don’t. I guess it sort of all melts into one for me. That whole period, it was just one thing after another, these leaks. I was never involved in WikiLeaks, I was trying to forge a career in filmmaking, but I monitored it and kept up to date with it from afar. We didn’t see Julian that much after that, because he got trapped in London. So I would only see him whenever I went to Europe. I’d make sure to go to London to see him, whether it was under house arrest or in the Ecuadorian embassy, and I’d take my daughter.
Were you surprised when all these accusations were made against him – particularly of rape? Did you have doubts at any point?
No. I knew Julian, and I knew that these people in power were afraid of Wikileaks. I was aware of the lengths they would go to to attack it and silence sources. But I was shocked that they would break all their own laws to keep Julian in the Ecuadorian Embassy for seven years, or all the abuse of process that happened in the Swedish case. I’d never dug down into the minutias and I probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t Julian who was involved. But it’s incredible to go into the details of that whole saga and see all the abuse of process at every level along the way. That’s all documented, now.
Stella decided to come out and step forward. And she’s the primary advocate for Julian now. She’s incredible – tireless and amazing.
Now it’s been three years since he was jailed at Belmarsh, waiting to hear whether London will hand him over to the US. At which point did you decide to get involved personally and make that film?
It was in 2019. In August that year I went to see Julian in the prison with John, my dad, and John Pilger, the journalist. It was a shock: I’d never seen Julian like that before. I left that day feeling I might never see him again. That’s when I thought I should do something…
The UN rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, said that the conditions of his detention amounted to psychological torture…
I’m not a professional. All I can say is that I’ve known Julian over the years and I’d never had that sort of feeling before. Nils Melzer took two experts and they found that he was being tortured. At that time he was being kept in the healthcare wing of the prison, which the prisoners actually call the ‘hell wing’.
So the healthcare wing is the hell wing at Belmarsh?!
Yeah. That’s where they keep the most suicidal, the clinically depressed but also the terminally ill, inmates with no arms and no legs… prisoners who are dying… So, you can imagine it’s not a very nice place.
And did he have access to a computer? Or could he read?
At that time, no. He was on a suicide watch type-situation, which is not very nice, you know. They don’t let you sleep, there are these different procedures, they check on you all the time… I left that day thinking, I have to do something. And we started thinking about how to tell our side of the story. I wanted to tell our family experiences of Julian’s persecution. That’s when we started. John was travelling around Europe at the time and we started following him. My film background is in narrative drama; I usually produce scripted drama films.
How did you choose Ben Lawrence to direct the documentary?
Ben was recommended to me by two old friends and we were on the same page from the very beginning about the way to tell this story. I watched Ben’s other films and got a real sense of the compassion he feels for the protagonists in his drama films and documentaries. That really struck me; I felt that that was the treatment we needed for my father and Stella. Ben really did a great job doing that in the film, treating their story with respect and compassion.
The film is mostly centred around your father, John, and his fight for his elder son. But there’s also a big part given to Julian’s wife, Stella. How did she come into the project? It was only later, right?
Yes, because Stella was still Julian’s secret family when we started filming. And it was only probably six months or so after we started filming that court documents revealed Stella’s name. So she decided to come out and step forward. And she’s the primary advocate for Julian now. She’s incredible – tireless and amazing. We decided that we’d track Stella’s journey and started following her as well, which you see in the film. You get a little bit of an insight into her journey, coming from a secret family and being Julian’s legal adviser and part of his legal team, to being one of Julian’s primary advocates and now one of Julian’s voices.
In the film, you get this heart-warming feeling of a family at large coming together.
The situation is dire, but this is something nice that’s grown out of it: Julian’s family, his marriage to Stella and their two kids… Even in all this mess and among all this grotesque treatment of Julian, there can still be love. There can still be the fruit of marriage: children and – yeah, family. That’s something that strikes me as very beautiful. When Stella and Julian got married in the prison, that was really touching. No matter what happens, these two people can still have this love together.
You were there when Julian and Stella married at Belmarsh?
Yes. It was just our family: me, John, Stella, Stella’s mum, brother and the two kids. It was very moving and it felt like the prison walls came down for that couple of hours that day.
Why aren’t the media reporting on it? Why aren’t they making this a campaign for freedom of information?
The film was released in the UK only a few weeks after the bad news of the judge authorising his extradition to the US… How did people react to it?
People are very moved by the film. Very moved. A lot of people don’t realise what’s going on. So when they see the film they understand more…
Don’t you think this is a bit crazy that people still don’t know what’s been going on? No due legal process and the kind of political persecution that goes against anything you would expect from a democratic country. And very few people are aware of it. Why is that?
I think it’s slowly changing now and the support is growing. There was a huge rally in London – there were between 10 and 12,000 people who came out for that.
But it was barely reported on by journalists… Let alone papers like The Guardian. Although they worked a lot with Assange in the past!
That’s the problem. Traditional media don’t support us. The support comes through things we do, like travel. We did 30 screenings of Ithaka in the UK in a month, sometimes we did two per day. When the press doesn’t cover us, that’s what we have to do.
Don’t you feel let down by those big progressive media – The Guardian in the UK, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel here – who owe Julian some of their best scoops, and now they’re so silent…. What happened?
I think you’ve got to go back and look at WikiLeaks – one of the problems that it was trying to solve was the way the old, corporate media behavee. When a newspaper had a leak, it used to be up to them to decide if they wanted to publish it or not – no one would know if they didn’t. But with Wikileaks, you would be able to go and look at the leak and at the reporting. So they no longer had the same freedom they did before to tell a story that suited whoever their corporate sponsors were, or whatever Rupert Murdoch, the government or whatnot wanted them to say.
So you think the traditional media got threatened by a platform like Wikileaks in the sense they were losing their monopoly on information, with leaks being made available to all?
Yeah, because Julian shamed them. Imagine the largest leak in history and none of them reported on it. They’d be exposed for what they are instantly. And part of that’s happening at the moment as well through Julian’s persecution: Why aren’t they reporting on it? Why aren’t they doing more? Why aren’t they making this a campaign for freedom of information – something they should be part of and that concerns them?
Julian Assange is now appealing his extradition to the US, where he’s risking a life sentence under the Treason Act… What do you think can happen now?
I’m – not ‘hopeful’, I guess it’s not the right word, but I’ve got faith that ordinary people will see this for what it is now. You just have to show them the injustice and they can readily understand that this affects them and their right to know what their governments do in their name and that of their democratic rights. So I think that’s why we’re seeing a growing movement around the world.
You have protests worldwide – they’re underreported, but they exist. They’re still there. And that grassroots support rises to the politicians. Now you have political groups all over the world – there are many in Berlin, also in the Bundestag; heads of state in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Australia… The Mexican president is often calling Joe Biden out. There’s a political movement that’s rising up from the people. So, there is ‘hope’.
- Ithaka will be screened as part of our EXBlicks series at Lichtblick Kino on October 27, 8pm. Tickets available here.