Before WikiLeaks: When Julian Assange Was Just Another Hacker
By Stephen CrittendenSeptember 6, 2012
Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly has put Julian Assange’s early years in Melbourne on screen. Before Underground’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8, the director recorded an audio interview with The Global Mail.
It's not often a movie made for television is invited to screen at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, but the subject matter of Underground, about the early life of the founder of WikiLeaks, is so topical and so fascinating that it must almost have recommended itself.
Director Robert Connolly, whose credits include Balibo, Romulus, My Father and The Boys, says he is drawn to formation stories about significant people and why they became the way they are. He says Assange has turned out to be "one of the more significant figures of the 21st century so far".
Underground stars Alex Williams, who graduated last year from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, as the young Julian, Rachel Griffiths as Julian's mother, Christine (an inspired piece of casting), and Anthony LaPaglia as the policeman in charge of the hacking investigation that led to Assange in the mid-1990s.
Set in 1989, the film is based on the bookUnderground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier (1997) by Suelette Dreyfus, a history of the first generation of underground Internet hackers. Connolly says the story has a specific resonance for Victorians:
"What is staggering is that in terms of global hacking, two years before the Internet and World Wide Web was commonplace, Melbourne was a world centre for it. Twenty of the leading hackers in the world at the time were meant to have come out of this part of the world."
Neither Julian Assange nor his mother, Christine, were approached for input into the film, but Assange was the primary researcher on Dreyfus's book, in which he also appears as a character. Going by the tag name Mendax, he and his young colleagues, Trax and Prime Suspect, called themselves the International Subversives. At a time well before most people owned a personal computer, they were hacking into the computer systems of NASA and Canadian communications company Nortel, and had the FBI and the Australian Federal Police on their trail.
But then, being on the run is surely one of the leitmotifs of young Julian's strange life. The film looks back to his extremely disrupted childhood: his family's involvement with a notorious religious cult called The Family, and at how he, his brother and mother moved from state to state and town to town to escape her former partner. In interviews, Assange has said that he attended 37 different schools all told.
So are there any special challenges involved in fictionalising a life that often seems stranger than fiction? "Yes, there are challenges, and you do feel a kind of responsibility in some ways when you're documenting a historic event. But also, by not being a documentary maker, by being a fiction feature-film maker, you also feel liberated to explore the issues in a broader way than just being an historical document. So you thematically explore issues in bigger, bolder ways."
Assange is obviously a complex person. Political commentator Gerard Henderson has described him as a narcissist; in an article in The Monthly in March 2011, politics professor Robert Manne compared him to Walter Mitty; and there is also the question of whether Assange suffers from some kind of persecution complex — perhaps even a well-founded-fear-of-persecution complex.
Robert Connolly says that in dramatising Assange's early life, he and his colleagues on Underground tried to bring out all that complexity. But the character they are dealing with in their story is an earlier character than the Julian Assange most people know.
"And so I brought what most dramatists do to a 17-year-old character they're depicting — a compassionate view of what it's like to be 17."
Viewers in Toronto and on Australian television screens are about to see that, clearly, this was no ordinary 17-year-old. "In the interviews I did in research, there were people saying he was one of a handful of genius hackers on the planet at that time. He was an exceptionally gifted man."