‘Ithaka’: Documenting the fight to free Julian Assange

June 15, 2022
A protest to free Julian Assange outside the British High Court in London on January 24. Photo: Alisdare Hickson

Ithaka: A Fight to Free Julian Assange
Directed by Ben Lawrence
Produced by Gabriel Shipton
Available on ABC iview

Despite his size, John Shipton moves with a hovering sense, a holy man with message and meaning. As Julian Assange’s father, he has found himself a bearer of messages and meaning, attempting to convince those in power that good sense and justice should prevail over brute stupidity and callousness. His one object: release Julian.

At the now defunct Druids Café on Swanston Street in Melbourne, he materialised out of the shadows, seeking candidates to stump for the incipient WikiLeaks Party over a decade ago. The intention was to run candidates in the 2013 Senate elections in Australia, providing a platform for the publisher, then confined in the less than commodious surrounds of the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Shipton urged activists and citizens to join the fray, to save his son, to battle for a cause. From this summit, power would be held accountable, institutions would function with sublime transparency, and citizens could be assured that their privacy would be protected.

In the documentary Ithaka: A Fight to Free Julian Assange, directed by Ben Lawrence, we see Shipton, Assange’s partner Stella Moris, the two children, the cat, glimpses of brother Gabriel, all pointing to the common cause that rises to the summit of purpose. The central figure, who only ever manifests in spectral form — on screen via phone or fleeting footage — is one of moral reminder, the purpose that supplies blood for all these figures.

Assange is being held at Belmarsh, Britain’s most secure and infamous prisons, denied bail, and being crushed by judicial procedure. But in these supporters, he has some vestigial reminders of a life outside.

The film’s promotion site describes the subject as “The world’s most famous political prisoner, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange”, a figure who has “become an emblem of an international arm wrestle over freedom of journalism, government corruption and unpunished war crimes.”

But it takes such a moment as Moris’s remarks in Geneva reflecting on the freshly erected statue of her husband to give a sense of breath, flesh and blood. “I am here to remind you that Julian isn’t a name, he isn’t a symbol, he’s a man and he’s suffering.” And suffer he shall, if the British Home Secretary Priti Patel decides to agree to the wishes of the United States Department of Justice.

The DOJ insists Assange face 17 charges framed, disgracefully and archaically, from a law passed during World War I and inimical to free press protections. (The eighteenth, predictably, deals with computer intrusion.) The Espionage Act of 1917 has become the crutch and support for prosecutors who see in Assange, less a journalist than an opportunistic hacker who outed informants and betrayed confidences.

Material for Lawrence comes readily enough, largely because of a flat he shared with Shipton during filming in England. The notable pauses over bread and a glass of wine, pregnant with meaning, the careful digestion of questions before the snappy response, and the throwaway line of resigned wisdom, are all repeated signatures.

In the background are the crashes and waves of the US imperium, menacing comfort and ravaging peace. All of this is a reminder that individual humanity is the best antidote to rapacious power.

Through the film, the exhausting sense of media, that estate ever present but not always listening, comes through. This point is significant enough; the media – at least in terms of the traditional Fourth Estate – put huge stock in the release of material from WikiLeaks in 2010, hailing the effort and praising the man behind it.

But relations soured, and tabloid nastiness set in. The centre-left found tell-all information and tales of Hillary Clinton too much to handle while the centre-right, having initially revelled in the revelations of WikiLeaks in 2016, took to demonising the herald.

Perversely, in the United States, accord was reached across a good number of political denizens: Assange had to go, and to go, he had to be prosecuted in Britain and extradited to the United States.

The documentary covers the usual highlights without overly pressing the viewer. A decent run-up is given to the Ecuadorean stint lasting 7 years, with Assange’s bundling out, and the Old Bailey proceedings covering extradition. But Shipton and Moris are the ones who provide the balancing acts in this mission to aid the man they both love.

Shipton, at points, seems tired and disgusted, his face abstracted in pain. He is dedicated, because the mission of a father is to be such. His son is in, as he puts it, “the shit”, and he is going to damn well shovel him out of it. But there is nothing blindingly optimistic about the endeavour.

The film has faced, as with its subject, the usual problems of distribution and discussion. In Gabriel Shipton’s words, “All of the negative propaganda and character assassination is so pervasive that many people in the sector and the traditional distribution outlets don’t want to be seen as engaging in advocacy for Julian.”

Where Assange goes, the power monopolies recoil. Despite these efforts, Shipton and Assange’s new wife are wandering minds, filled with experiences of hurt and hope. Shipton, in particular, gives off a smell of resignation before the execution. For Shipton, things can only get worse, but he would still do it again.

As we all should.

[Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com.]

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