‘There were plans to poison Julian’: Ithaka, the film charting Assange’s struggle for freedom

The poem ithaca, written in 1911 by the Greek writer Constantine Kavafis, it opens with the lines: “As you set out for Ithaka / Hope your journey is long / Full of adventure, full of discoveries.” It has given a new documentary about Julian Assange both the title and, in many ways, the theme. The film follows Assange’s 76-year-old father, John Shipton, on his own long and winding road to try to rescue his son from US prison on charges of espionage, the result of the state secrets revealed by WikiLeaksthe organization that Assange founded.

Created by Australian director Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton, the film will be released in Britain at a pivotal stage in the journey. Two weeks ago, Interior Minister Priti Patel gave the green light for the extradition of Assangewho has spent the past three years in Belmarsh, the maximum-security prison in London, after seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy until his arrest in 2019† His legal team is appealing the latest decision and the battle will be fought over the coming months.

There have been countless documentaries, books, podcasts and statements about Assange, but Ithaka takes a different and very sideways approach, focusing on a father’s quest for his son’s freedom. “Julian and I are almost the same age and for someone of my generation he really left a mark,” director Lawrence said in a video call from Sydney. “As an avid reader of the news, I was fascinated by the story. So when I got the chance to participate, I was immediately interested.”

Shipton was not a part of his son’s life from when Assange was a precocious three-year-old nicknamed “Wizard” until his early 20s. But he has now become a key figure along with Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, in the struggle to release him. We see Shipton outside the Old Bailey in 2020 as the judge makes the first decision, since quashed, to stop the extradition on the grounds it could lead to Assange’s suicide. Footage shows how he gives numerous interviews and lectures during meetings “because Julian can no longer speak for himself”.

Shipton, who has worked in construction all his life, has – like his son – always been on the casual side. We hear how, at age 11, at a boarding school in Bathurst, New South Wales, he wrote Voltaire’s lines on the board while his classmates were in chapel. He was an anti-war activist in his youth when Australia fought alongside the US in Vietnam, so there’s a symmetry: WikiLeaks’ best-known revelations concern atrocities committed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistanjust like the treatment of unconvicted detainees in Guantánamo Bay† “I’ve never found a war I liked,” Shipton says remarkably cheerfully via video from Sheffield, where the film will premiere at the documentary festival.

The film captures Shipton on his many travels. “I have two passports full of stamps – that’s my reckoning,” he says. “ Eight times Geneva, Berlin, Oslo, Bergen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Gothenburg. It was exhausting, so when Gabriel and I were traveling across the US and we were a little down at the end of the day, we played the Sean Connery recording of Ithaka on YouTube, with that nice brogue he has.” His current literary companion, he says, is Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo.

Countless interviews… John Shipton addresses the media in Ithaca.
Countless interviews… John Shipton addresses the media in Ithaca. Photo: Film PR handout undefined

Some of the film center’s most notable scenes on CCTV footage from Assange and Moris’ Ecuadorian Embassy. They did not know at the time that they were being filmed. We see Assange skateboarding through his small room and eating a quiet Christmas meal with his father and Moris. “It’s footage from the security company’s embassy,” Lawrence says. It features scenes of Assange’s meetings with his lawyers and doctors – and would be hand-delivered into the US every 15 days. “Stella was approached by one of the guards who warned her about it,” he adds. “At that time she stopped going to the embassy. Really nasty stuff.”

Moris discusses it in Ithaca: “The whole place was basically bugged by the CIA… we found out there were plans to kill Julian by poisoning him.” She also talks about the similarities between Assange and his father and how “Julian always knew he was different…he felt like an alien.” Also striking is the presence of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture whose quote opens the film: “Torture is a tool used to send a warning to others. It is most effective when inflicted in public. In Julian’s case, it’s about intimidating everyone else.”

Lawerence felt that Melzer’s contribution was key. “When he published his findings in 2019 [that Assange was a victim of torture] it really boosted the movement. It really sets the scene for the film, in the sense that it’s someone from the outside. I think he offers a new entry point, just like John himself. It feels like one of quite a few doorways that you can enter into the story.” Shipton is equally effusive about Melzer, who hails from Switzerland and calls him “an angel.”

Also crucial are the interviews Shipton gives in the Chelsea home that the crew shared during the extradition hearing. They are sometimes carried out with reluctance and irritation at the end of a campaign day and before he drinks his evening glass of wine. “He’s like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor,” says Lawrence’s Shipton, who had 15 hours of these interviews to edit. “He just keeps digging.” Shipton still hasn’t seen the finished film. “I’m a little scared about it. I don’t want to see myself tripping over sentences or pontification. I’m just happy when other people see it and understand what we’re trying to do as a family.”

Belmarsh Bride... Stella Moris outside the prison where she married Assange earlier this year.
Belmarsh Bride… Stella Moris outside the prison where she married Assange earlier this year. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Some high-profile Assange supporters are also in attendance. Daniel Ellsberg, who himself was jailed in 1973 for revealing the Pentagon Papers, notes: “If Julian is extradited to the United States to face these charges, he will be the first journalist and publisher — but not the last.” The Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei is interviewed outside the Old Bailey, and the film’s soundtrack is by Brian Eno, another longtime supporter. Donald Trump appears briefly in news footage declaring, “I LOVE WikiLeaks!” and there are images of the failed attempts to get a last-minute pardon from him. Also on display is the prison wedding of Assange and Moris in March, attended by: their two little sons, Max and Gabriel, who were conceived in the embassy; and we meet Shipton’s own five-year-old, Severine, before she returns to her mother in Australia.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Ithaka has some touchingly unusual moments. In one scene, on the phone with Assange in Belmarsh, Moris steps outside and the clip of a passing horse can be heard. “That’s a nice sound,” Julian notes.

“I thought it was such a beautiful moment,” Lawrence says. “A man who was in prison listening to the sounds of the outside world and deeply appreciating them because he hadn’t heard them for so long.” In another scene, Shipton reflects, “It’s been 11 years since Julian was in the company of a tree or a plant or a caterpillar or a butterfly.” Lawrence hopes this less traditional approach will help the film reach a wider audience — he quotes Errol MorrisFrederick WisemanJoe Berlinger, Michael Winterbottom and Tom Zubrycki as documentary makers he admires.

Held… Assange after his arrest in 2019.
Held… Assange after his arrest in 2019. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Assange has been a problematic figure at times, one who has feuded spectacularly with many journalists – not least some at the Guardian and the New York Times. But even those who found him difficult are now arguing vigorously against his incarceration by the US authorities whose shameful – and unpunished – behavior he denounced through the data leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, who has himself served a prison term. This behavior included the fatal shooting of Iraqi civilians and Reuters journalists from a US Military Apache Helicopter in 2007 and details of the torture of detainees arrested in Afghanistan.

Ithaca – by humanizing Assange through his lovable father, his loyal wife and his children, and through the specter of a grim American supermax prison and a reminder of what secrets WikiLeaks unveiled — hopes to reach an audience that can play a role in stopping the kind of vengeful punishment WikiLeaks has so often exposed. For Shipton, the journey has certainly been a long one. Now he is waiting for the next adventures and discoveries.

Ithaka will be released in the UK on July 8 and will be streamed on ABC iview in Australia.

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