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‘We Steal Secrets:’ Alex Gibney Follows the Formation of WikiLeaks

Julian Assange and the story of what came to be called WikiLeaks inspires strong opinions. It’s a tale that includes so many threads: our secretive government, operating in a democracy whose lifeblood is the free flow of information; the controversial wars waged since the September 11 attacks; the interrelated information and internet revolutions. Some say Assange is a hacker hero, a peace-loving truth-teller, and an icon and martyr for freedom of speech. Others are sure he’s a villain, a sociopath and a thief who could have followed journalistic convention and released information in a way that didn’t endanger good people around the world.

Julian Assange

Another fascinating, polarizing figure in the story is Bradley Manning, the young soldier who copied “wheelbarrows full” of classified information as he famously listened to Lady Gaga in his headphones. His act led to perhaps the largest security breach in United States history.

The documentary film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is director Alex Gibney’s seventh collaboration with cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who is best known for her Spirit Award-winning images in The Wrestler and Velvet Goldmine. Her doc cred is well established in films like Crumb, When We Were Kings and Incident at Oglala. With Gibney, Alberti has shot the Oscar-nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning doc Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Regarding her work on We Steal Secrets, Alberti says, “This is the world of secrets. It’s an underground world of hackers and people who hide their names, a world of shadows. We tried to find locations that would work with that idea. No living rooms, no big, sunny conference rooms, but rather bars and clubs, places that give your picture the texture of darkness. I kept the light to a minimum, but you do like to see the eyes and mouth of the person talking. You need the emotion. It’s not like a fiction film, where you can keep someone in the shadows for a whole scene. But I often tried to light the face half dark, with darkness and points of light in the background.”

Maryse Alberti

Footage was shot over the course of two years in Australia, England, Iceland, Germany, Sweden and the United States. Alberti shot most of We Steal Secrets with a Sony PMW-F3 camcorder. A few scenes were captured with a Canon EOS 5D or a Sony PMW-EX3. She says these tools facilitate working simply, with a small crew. The lenses were usually Angenieux or Cooke short zooms. The lighting package was minimal. At its biggest, it included two Kino Flo Diva lights, two 1×1 Litepanels, an 800-watt HMI, a couple of Dedolights for small tungsten kicks, and maybe a 100- or 600-watt tungsten fixture. For cutting and shaping, the package included Matthews Studio Equipment RoadRags, a kit of foldable flags and other grip gear. In certain situations, Alberti might rent extra gear.

“What is great about the world of documentary [filmmaking] is that locations usually come with their own lighting,” she says. “You can decide what to keep and what to turn off. Sometimes you walk into a club or a library where all the lights work well. You can use that as a base and extend. On We Steal Secrets, we often added some cool light on the subject. Then when I set the camera for warm skin tones, the background becomes very rich, saturated and even warmer.”

Alberti appreciates the long roll times digital cameras offer. “With film, one was a little more careful because of the cost of film,” she says. “I haven’t shot anything on film in several years. Now, in the digital age, you can roll for quite a long time without worrying about cost. It’s just that the editor has to deal with a pile of material. But I think the digital format really does help with interviews. It allows you to have an interview with an uninterrupted, conversational feel.”

Gibney is a master of the form, she says. “I’ve worked with people who were not good interviewers,” Alberti says. “They read the question, listen to the answer and read the next question. Alex has a way of asking questions that are pretty aggressive, but in such a non-aggressive way. Often people will hold back a little, but they will still answer. Getting people to open up when they are trying to tell you only what they want to tell you—that is the art of interview. Another part of Alex’s work is to seduce, to understand the person and get them to trust enough to be on camera. Why do they want to be on camera? Why would they want to take that risk and talk? That’s the first part. And then, once that person is on camera, it becomes the art of interviewing.”

Alberti plays a role in putting the interview subject at ease. On the set, she is attuned to the subject and his or her interaction with Gibney, and adapts accordingly. “Sometimes Alex and I will joke with each other to put people at ease,” she says. “Of course, I will introduce myself. Some people don’t need a lot of attention, and some people really do. Some need to be reassured that they look great. That’s part of being on a documentary crew—judging when to stay back or when to step forward, while always being humble and discreet and not invasive.”

Alberti chooses her crew very carefully, with an eye on this type of emotional intelligence. “You want people who are interested in the world, people who can empathize and sympathize in a genuine way,” she says. “You meet so many different people, so you have to have a crew that is genuinely interested. You have to know how to travel light and pack tight. You have to know how to work with very few and simple tools.

“A crew that is loud or clumsy, that doesn’t help Alex,” she continues. “The director needs a crew that knows the technique so well that it becomes secondary. When it’s working, the crew almost floats. It’s not invisible, but a certain ease is required so the subject is comfortable. You don’t walk into someone’s space and take it over like you do on a movie or a commercial. You respect that someone is letting you in. At the same time, you have to do what you need to do.”

Alex Gibney

In addition to the interviews, Alberti shot a wide range of environments and situations, from frog races in Australia to volcano fields in Iceland and a subterranean labyrinth of wires. For one scene, Alberti rigged a harness that attached a camera to a subject as he walked the streets and rode the subway in London. For those images, Alberti blurred the background a bit in post to intensify the feeling of his interior world.

Comparing documentary work to narrative feature cinematography, Alberti says, “I’m trying to tell the story, to make an image that works for the story. That is the same. But what’s different is the control, the size of the crew, and whom you have to answer to. When I work on a documentary, I work with Alex and I work with my crew—my assistant and the sound person. When I go on a movie or commercials set, I have a lot more control most of the time. But I’m dealing with the producer, the directors, the actors, the AD, the production designer and the costume designer. It’s different. It’s still a collaborative process, but it’s much bigger.

Neither Assange nor Manning were interviewed for the film; they appear exclusively in archival material. Assange, currently in self-imposed exile at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, placed conditions on his interview that Gibney couldn’t accept, and Manning is in prison. (His trial began on June 3.) Gibney uses interviews with others and an array of documentary techniques to tell the story.

Regarding her documentary work in general, Alberti says, “I think that we’re very lucky and privileged in the world of the documentaries to be let into all these different worlds, to meet people you’d never otherwise meet, and to listen to what we listen to. Those moments all are precious.”