TThe poem Ithaca, written by the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy in 1911, begins with the following lines: “As you set forth in Ithaca / May your journey be long / full of adventure, full of discoveries.” He made a new documentary about Julian Assange with its title and subject matter in many ways. The film follows John Shipton, the father of 76-year-old Assange, on his long and winding path trying to save his son from US prison on espionage charges, stemming from state secrets revealed by WikiLeaks, the organization that Assange founded.
The film – directed by Australian director Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton – is set in Britain at a crucial point in the journey. Two weeks ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel gave the green light to extradite Assange, who has been held for three years in London’s Belmarsh Maximum Security Prison, after he spent seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy until his arrest in 2019. His legal team is appealing against the latest decision and the battle will be fought over the months coming.
There have been countless documentaries, books, podcasts, and statements about Assange, but Ithaca takes a very different and skewed approach, focusing on a father’s quest for his son’s freedom. “Julian and I are about the same age and for someone of my generation he’s made a real mark,” director Lawrence says on a video call from Sydney. “As an avid reader of news, I was fascinated by the story. So when I had the opportunity to share I was immediately interested.”
Shipton wasn’t a part of his son’s life since Assange was three years old, nicknamed “The Wizard,” until his early twenties. But he is now a major figure, alongside Assange’s wife, Stella Morris, in the fight for his release. We see Shipton out of the Old Bailey in 2020 as the judge makes the initial decision, since it was overturned, to stop the extradition on the grounds that it could lead to Assange’s suicide. In the footage, he appears to be giving countless interviews and conversations at gatherings “because Julian can no longer speak for himself”.
Shipton, who spent his life in the construction trade, was always – like his son – on the maverick side. We hear how when he was eleven, at a boarding school in Bathurst, New South Wales, he wrote lines from Voltaire on the board while his classmates were at church. He was an anti-war activist in his youth when Australia was fighting side by side with the United States in Vietnam, so there is consistency: WikiLeaks’ most famous disclosure relates to atrocities committed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the treatment of unconvicted prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. “I’ve never found a war I liked,” Shipton says, with remarkable glee, via a video clip from Sheffield, where the film is showing for the first time at the Documentary Film Festival.
The film captures Shipton on his many travels. “I have two passports full of stamps – this is my bill of lading,” he says. Geneva eight times, Berlin, Oslo, Bergen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Gothenburg. It was stressful, so when Gabrielle and I were traveling across the States and down a little bit at the end of the day, we used to play Sean Connery’s recording of Ithaca on YouTube, with this beautiful brogue that he has.” His current literary companion, he says, is Nietzsche’s Essie Homo.
Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes centered on CCTV footage from inside the Ecuadorean embassy in Assange and Maurice. They did not know at the time that they had been photographed. We see Assange skateboarding around his small room and having a Christmas meal with his father and Maurice. “It’s embassy footage from the security company,” Lawrence says. It contains scenes from Assange’s meetings with his lawyers and doctors – presumably hand-delivered to the US every 15 days. “One of the security guards approached Stella and warned her about it,” he adds. I stopped going to the embassy at that point. Really dirty things.”
Morris discusses it in Ithaca: “The whole place was bugged by the CIA… We found out that 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 a foreigner.” Also remarkable is the presence of Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who opened the film with a quote: “Torture is a tool used to send a warning to others. It is most effective when inflicted in public. In Julian’s case, it is about intimidating others.”
Lawrence felt Melzer’s contribution was essential. When he published his results in 2019 [that Assange was a victim of torture] It really gave a boost to the movement. It really forms the backdrop to the movie, as it’s someone who enters from the outside. I think it introduces a new entry point, as does John himself. It feels like one of a whole number of entrances you can get into the story.” Shipton was equally excited about Melzer, who is from Switzerland, and called him an “angel.”
Also of interest are the interviews Shipton conducted at Chelsea’s home with the crew during his extradition hearing. It is sometimes performed with hesitation and anger at the end of a day’s campaign and before he has his evening wine glass. “He’s like Dostoevsky’s great detective,” says Shipton of Lawrence, who had 15 hours of these interviews to edit. “He’s constantly hiding.” Shipton has yet to see the completed movie. “I’m a little afraid of him. I don’t want to watch myself trip over the camel or speak up. I’m only happy if other people see it and understand what we’re trying to do as a family.”
It also features some prominent Assange supporters. Daniel Ellsberg, who faced prison in 1973 for exposing the Pentagon Papers, notes: “If Julian was extradited to the United States to face these charges, he would be the first journalist and publisher — but not the last.” Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is interviewed outside of the Old Bailey, and the film’s soundtrack is by Brian Eno, another longtime supporter. Donald Trump appears briefly in the news footage saying “I love WikiLeaks!” There are footage of failed attempts to obtain a pardon at the last minute. Assange and Maurice’s prison wedding in March also featured their two young sons, Max and Gabriel, who were born at the embassy; We meet five-year-old Shipton, Severin, before she returns to her mother in Australia.
Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, Ithaka has some poignant moments. In one scene, Morris, speaking on the phone to Assange in Belmarsh, is stepping outside and the chime of a passing horse can be heard. Julian comments: “That’s a beautiful sound.”
“I thought it was a beautiful moment,” Lawrence says. “A prisoner man listens to the sounds of the outside world and has a deep appreciation for them, because he has not heard them for a long time.” In another scene, Shipton says, “It’s been 11 years since Julian has been in the company of a tree, a plant, a caterpillar or a butterfly.” Lawrence hopes this less conventional approach will help the film reach a wider audience – he cites Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, Joe Berlinger, Michael Winterbottom and Tom Zubericky as documentary filmmakers he admires.
Assange has at times been a problematic figure, striking at odds with many journalists – not least in the Guardian and the New York Times. But even those who found him difficult now argue vehemently against his imprisonment by the US authorities whose shameful – and unpunished – behavior was exposed by data leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, who herself suffered imprisonment. 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 prisoners captured in Afghanistan.
Ithaca — by humanizing Assange through his lovable father, faithful wife and children, through the ghost of a grim American Supermax prison and a reminder of what WikiLeaks has revealed — hopes to reach an audience that can play a role in stopping the genre. From the retaliatory punishment that WikiLeaks often disclosed. For Shipton, the journey has certainly been a long one. Now he is waiting for the next adventures and discoveries.