Sometimes it can be said that a documentary is exemplary for not accomplishing what is set out to do. And the Julian Assange Wikileaks production Mediastan may have succeeded in not doing just that. As those Wikileaks foot soldiers fail in their mission to find remote and presumably uncorrupted media organizations courageous enough to publish the damning cables leaked by far more courageous whistleblowers than these press outlets prove to be.
Increasingly doomed to extinction on the endangered list, so to speak, is mainstream journalism. The victim of a tug of war between the corporations gobbling up the pitiful remains, and incestuously connected powerful political interests – too often one and the same – journalism has given rise in the wake of this fate to its deplorable mutation – presstitutes.
That is, a dishonorable profession constituting opportunists willing to compromise convictions and self-censor for fame, a vocation or a paycheck – and more likely all of the above. Which has tended to leave the field wide open to investigative filmmakers documenting by default, various forms of political and economic corruption hiding in plain sight.
And, even if those filmmakers must surmount enormous difficulties, dangers and constraints. Such as Swedish documentarian Fredrik Gertten, whose expose of the Dole fruit company – Big Boys Gone Bananas! – precipitated corporate lawsuits against him. Or the unsuccessful NYC government attempted censorship and confiscation attacks against Ken and Sarah Burns’ wrongful conviction documentary, The Central Park Five. And director Laura Poitras, forced into exile in Germany following US government harassment for her investigative work with Wikileaks and convicted whistleblower, Bradley Manning.
And there are times when filmmakers must go to extraordinary creative and imaginative lengths to elude censorship or persecution when putting a production together. As did director Simone Bitton for her provocatively principled documentary, Rachel, unraveling the tragedy of the young social justice activist Rachel Corrie and her state murder, buried alive by a bulldozer in Israeli occupied Palestine. A Moroccan born self-described Arab Jew, Bitton searched for a naked truth while sifting through mountains of lies, and directing a movie by telephone across the forbidden borders of Gaza.
And now Wikileaks head whistleblower Julian Assange has done pretty much the same with his documentary Mediastan, about the real work across the globe of Wikileaks in the context of a media propaganda free zone. And virtually by remote, while holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he has been granted asylum to elude what has been characterized as politically motivated criminal charges against him.
Mediastan has been released on the Internet to coincide with the Hollywood debut of Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks and Disney’s collaborative when not conspiratorial The Fifth Estate, a dramatic Assange biopic denounced by him as a determined demonization. And Assange’s documentary focuses instead, not on the content of the leaked cables in question exposing extra-legal government machinations around the globe. But a rather spontaneously parallel leak of the often sinister when not surreal efforts of media outlets not to publish them.
Gritty and grainy but fearlessly fascinating footage by footage revelations along the way, Mediastan in its journey deep into the rugged realms of remote Central Asia, seems to be in search of a pristine media as well, yet untouched by the corrupted, cosmopolitan polluted press. But this quixotic quest seems to discover instead, just how far the reach of political censorship can be across the globe, and how universal the human trait of cowardice across cultures. And where in many cases, the Wikileaks foot soldiers generously offering these scandalous ploys of the powerful on the planet to whatever media outlet might summon the balls to expose them, might as well be peddling child porn to the collectively frightened and freaked out.
Assange assigns the task of directing Mediastan seemingly by proxy via filmmaker Johannes Wahlstrom on this global Operation Cablerun in search of ‘media partners.’ Or as he states in the film, ‘I can only live vicariously. Sending these people around the world for me, in some remote adventure.’ And the frustrated but never daunted Wikileaks crew forges on, encountering mostly fears of lawsuits, or reprisals from politically dominant elements if they publish these cables exposing serious state crimes.
In one case, a press outlet balks at exposing evidence of a US embassy official about to stage a coup abroad, fearing litigation. Another complains about not being inspired by the documents, and rationalizes via philosophical mouthings of Aristotle, that what good is Wikileaks if ensuing direct social change is not on the menu. Even if a counter-argument is offered that information is indeed a weapon.
Later in Afghanistan, an exceedingly strange sidebar encounter with a Swedish human rights worker presents the question from the Wikileaks crew, if you’re here at the behest of the US military to promote human rights, don’t you think you’re really promoting the US military presence. To which the incredulously clueless woman hesitantly replies, well I never thought of that.
Likewise discovered along the way in the Russian wilderness, are mistreated oil workers who have been on a hunger strike protest for two weeks. When asked by the filmmakers why the press is nowhere is sight to cover their grievances, they say the local mayor forbids it. And in their frustration, some of the workers have begun stabbing themselves.
The documentary then circles back to Assange, sequestered in a face-to-face with the London editor of the Guardian newspaper, who cowers and whimpers as he’s interrogated by Assange about why he censored the Cables provided to him. While over in New York City, a NY Times editor cheerfully details how he first checks in with the CIA before publishing anything deemed too critical of the US government.
Which effectively flips the script of Mediastan, venturing into not what’s wrong with governments at the moment, but what seriously and terminally ails the media in collusion with them. Though a missing link investigation into how the economic sector influencing or outright controlling governments and the media ferociously kicks in too, would have rounded out this inquiry nicely.
Mediastan is dedicated to whistleblower Bradley Manning, imprisoned for 35 years for providing the documents in question to Wikileaks. And with appreciation to fearless filmmakers of principle Laura Poitras, Ken Loach and others.
Mediastan: Rocky road movie to nowhere, but with an unanticipated detour into a questionable parallel press universe.
To see the trailer: