Julian Assange was taken to Belmarsh Prison in April 2019, initially after being found guilty of breaching bail conditions. That he is still there is, however, due to his actions a decade earlier: as the founder of WikiLeaks, the Australian journalist enraged the US by publishing a slew of classified material, most famously an information dump in 2010 that revealed evidence of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US wants to extradite Assange and try him on charges of espionage. Ithaka: The Fight to Free Assange opens in May 2019 and charts the first two years in his legal battle to resist.
With Assange himself out of reach, Ithaka follows the efforts of his family members, mainly his father, John Shipton, to apply pressure on his behalf. It fits the normal rhythms of a film about campaigning: news archive provides context and to-camera interviews intersperse scenes that are shot in transit between engagements, as phone calls are received delivering good – or more often bad – news.
The result is more a profile of Shipton, who stepped into the public eye for the first time following his son’s arrest, than Assange. Shipton is a not uninteresting figure, a slow, low talker with a love of daydreamy literary references. He speaks openly about how he absented himself for the entirety of Assange’s childhood, because he preferred his work as a builder to domestic commitment. “I don’t relate really well to people,” he says. In another life he might have been content on the fringes of society, his canny cynicism about governments and media the result merely of distant observation – as it is, his son being “in the shit” has drawn him into a new routine of TV appearances, tours of European parliaments, and strangers gripping his hand as they urge him to pass on messages of solidarity, experiences to which he has adjusted as well as he can. Perhaps his son’s troubles have awoken him in other ways as well: at 76, he has a five-year-old daughter.
But Assange is a journalist being threatened with life behind bars for revealing grave truths, an individual in danger of being crushed by a country that advertises itself as the standard-bearer of superior western freedoms – who cares what the bloke’s dad is like? Some of the scenes building a picture of Shipton’s character could possibly have been cut, to slim the film’s 110-minute running time. The point, maybe, is that Assange is so friendless among people of influence that it has become necessary for his old man to have a go at becoming a press spokesman, lobbyist and legal expert all rolled into one. Apart from Assange’s wife Stella Moris, who cuts a resilient but taciturn figure here, worn down by bringing up two young children while watching her husband’s health and sanity ebb, there is seemingly nobody else – British politicians and commentators who identify as advocates of free speech, for example – available to assist.
The film explains this by referring straightforwardly to a smear campaign against Assange, when the reality is a little subtler: although fellow journalists have spoken in opposition to his extradition, there have also been a large number of articles focusing on Assange’s supposed personality flaws. The world’s most famous accomplice of whistleblowers, a man under intense scrutiny who has been diagnosed as autistic, can apparently display odd behaviours and be hard to deal with. Moris has previously railed against “ambiguous, half-hearted defences”, a point that might usefully have been explored here. Nevertheless, Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture who describes Assange’s continued confinement as “psychological torture”, does admit that he almost didn’t respond to requests to look into the Assange case, because the stigmatising effect of negative media coverage caused him to instinctively recoil from the name.
Even for those who see the issue clearly, Assange’s imprisonment has become just another injustice, occasionally making its way back into the news cycle before being washed away by a constant rain of scandal, in an era when norms are exploded and rights eroded too quickly for citizens to monitor. The latest phase of his predicament has been making headlines since 2021 when a UK court stopped his extradition – prompting a back-and-forth in which Priti Patel stepped in to approve his extradition at one point. But the decision was made due to Assange’s ill health and his being a suicide risk – on the question of whether it was basically OK for journalists to be tried on espionage charges, the British judge sided with the US government. Assange has remained locked up ever since, as a series of appeals have indefinitely elongated the legal process.
Ithaka might be more a part of the campaign to free Julian Assange than an objective report on it, but that it ends up as a woolly piece about kooky outsiders is an indictment in itself: a better film about effective activists does not exist. Meanwhile, Ithaka convincingly makes the case that Assange’s nearest and dearest are fighting their hopeless battle on behalf of us all.
Ithaka: The Fight to Free Assange aired on ITV1 and is available on ITVX.