The Fifth Estate follows the real-life experiences of Daniel Domscheit-Berg and his time working with the infamous Julian Assange on the notorious website WikiLeaks. The film recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and members of the cast and crew were in attendance. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer shared their thoughts on the film with Working Author.
“Well I think for me it was the experience of reading the script was so, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know that,’ you know,” Director Bill Condon says, regarding challenges in bringing this story to life. “I think first of all that [Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg are] two such compelling characters, that the relationship is so compelling and that within the story you get to really examine these hot button issues that are like really of such incredible relevance to all of us now. So that for me was why I thought, ‘Well, that’s a movie worth making.’”
For many, WikiLeaks, and the events that surrounded the website, was a prime example of a contradiction between American ideals and American actions. Screenwriter Josh Singer zeroed in on that inconsistency. “The fascinating thing about reading Daniel’s book was looking at how much they had done and what great heroic stuff they had done early on and how they had really been, you know, become this wonderful new way of pushing transparency of checking government and checking large corporations from very early on,” he explained. “But for me, that stuff now has context and it has context both in terms of Julian and Daniel’s relationship and there’s context in terms of the ideals of transparency they were pushing for….”
One of the sticking points of transparency, of course, is whether or not there can be too much transparency. Many will question if it’s true that nothing Assange leaked ever resulted in a death. “According to him it is [true], you know,” Condon replies. “And it’s complicated because there are sources in the State Department who say, ‘No that’s not true.’ At the same time at the Bradley Manning hearing when it was time for them to sort of point to someone, they couldn’t. So I mean, you know, you decide. I mean it’s really – the jury is basically out on that.”
In making the film, the filmmakers had sources in the State Department who could give them more insight into the events. And while a provable death resulting from leaked information might still be up in the air, certainly lives were put in danger. “When we talked to [the State Department sources] we really got a sense of to what extent this has really disrupted what had gone on in the State Department in terms of, you know, any number of confidential sources who might not have lost their lives but were in jeopardy and had to be moved out of their countries, you know, like we showed with Tariq,” Singer adds. He gives an example of a South American woman who had to leave the country because of leaked information. “And so her entire home, her entire way of life was gone.”
On another front, WikiLeaks also raises serious questions about traditional media, mainly its value compared to new media. “Well, hopefully [traditional media] isn’t done, but it’s in trouble,” Condon says. “There’s no question, right? Nick Davies talks about this a lot, the fact that investigative journalism is as the script says, pricey, and the money for that is less and less available. And so, yeah, there’s some value to what people like WikiLeaks can provide but the crucial thing is, who then becomes the person who decides?”
Singer followed up with his own thoughts on the matter. “…As you all know the past 5, 10 years have not been kind to the Fourth Estate, to traditional journalism. There have been layoffs, there have been, you know, newspapers have shrunk, a lot of them have gone out of business and this is a real problem, you know. Clay Shirkey has documented this ad infinitum. The old models are dying a little bit, right? And if the old models are dying, what is going to be the proper check? Who is going to check government? Who is gonna check these corporations? Who’s going to make sure this graft isn’t happening? And that’s where hopefully pioneers like Julian and Daniel come in.”
The one advantage traditional media has, however, is that it’s an institution that was built on ethics and standards, even if many outlets have seemingly forgotten them. “But there are standards,” Singer says, laughing. “There are journalistic ethics and so when you have this Fifth Estate, you know, it’s a question of well who is giving us that news and will they stay true to the same sort of level of journalistic ethics and integrity?”
The Fifth Estate opens in theaters on October 18, 2013.