Tthe poem ithaca, written in 1911 by the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy, it begins with the lines: “As you head to Ithaca / I hope your journey will be long / full of adventure, full of discovery.” It has given a new documentary on Julian Assange both its title and, in many ways, its subject. The film follows Assange’s father, 76-year-old John Shipton, on his own long and winding road to try to save his son from US jail on espionage charges as a result of state secrets revealed by WikiLeaksthe organization Assange founded.
The film, made by Australian director Ben Lawrence and produced by Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s brother, opens in Britain at a crucial stage of the journey. Two weeks ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel green light for Assange’s extraditionwho has been held in Belmarsh, London’s high-security prison, for three years, after spending seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy until his arrest in 2019. His legal team is appealing against the latest decision and the battle will be fought in the coming months.
There have been countless documentaries, books, podcasts and pronouncements 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 practically the same age and for someone of my generation it really made an impression,” says director Lawrence in a video call from Sydney. “As an avid news reader, I was fascinated by the story. So when the opportunity to get involved came along, I was immediately interested.”
Shipton was not a part of his son’s life from the time Assange was a precocious three-year-old, nicknamed “Wizard,” until he was 20 years old. But he has now become a key figure, along with Assange’s wife, star of moriin the fight for his liberation. We see Shipton outside the Old Bailey in 2020 as the judge makes the initial, later overturned, decision to stop the extradition on the grounds that it could lead to Assange’s suicide. The footage shows him giving countless interviews and speaking at rallies “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 heard how when he was 11, at boarding school in Bathurst, New South Wales, he wrote lines from Voltaire on the blackboard while his classmates were in chapel. He was an anti-war activist in his youth when Australia was fighting alongside the US in Vietnam, so there is a symmetry: concern over the more well-known WikiLeaks revelations. atrocities committed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistanjust like him treatment of unsentenced prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. “I never found a war I liked,” Shipton says, remarkably cheerful, via video from Sheffield, where the film premieres at the documentary festival.
The film captures Shipton on his many travels. “I have two passports full of stamps, that’s my spreadsheet,” she says. “Geneva eight times, Berlin, Oslo, Bergen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Gothenburg. It’s been exhausting, so when Gabriel and I were traveling around the US and getting a little down at the end of the day, we used to play the Sean Connery recording of Ithaca on YouTube, with that beautiful accent of hers.” His current literary companion, he says, is Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo.
Some of the most notable scenes in the film center around CCTV footage from inside the Ecuadorian embassy of Assange and Moris. They did not know, at the time, that they were being filmed. We see Assange skateboarding around her tiny room and enjoying a low-key Christmas dinner with her father and Moris. “It’s embassy footage from the security company,” says Lawrence. It contains scenes of Assange’s meetings with her lawyers and her doctors, and was allegedly hand-delivered to the US every 15 days. “One of the security guards approached Stella and warned her about it,” he adds. “She stopped going to the embassy at that time. Really dirty stuff.
Moris breaks it down in Ithaka: “The whole place was basically CIA tapped… we found out there were plans to kill Julian by poisoning him.” He also talks about the similarities between Assange and her father and how “Julian always knew he was different…he felt like an alien.” He also draws attention to the presence of Nils Melzer, the A 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 bullying everyone else.”
Lawrence felt that Melzer’s contribution was key. “When he published his findings in 2019 [that Assange was a victim of torture] really gave the movement a boost. It really forms a background for the film, as it is someone who intervenes from the outside. I think he offers a new entry point, as does John himself. He feels like one of many doors you can enter the story through.” Shipton is equally effusive of Melzer, who is from Switzerland, calling him “an angel.”
Also crucial are the interviews Shipton gives at the Chelsea home that the team shared during the extradition hearing. They are sometimes carried out listlessly and irritably at the end of a day’s campaign and before he has had his evening glass of wine. “He’s like Dostoevsky’s grand inquisitor,” says Shipton of Lawrence, who had 15 hours of these interviews to edit. “Keep burying.” Shipton has yet to see the full movie. He scares me a little. I don’t want to see myself trip over sentences or pontificate. I am happy if other people see it and understand what we are trying to do as a family.”
Some of Assange’s high-profile supporters also appear. Daniel Ellsberg, who faced jail time 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 briefly appears in news footage declaring “I LOVE WikiLeaks!” and there are images of the failed attempts to obtain a last-minute pardon from him. Assange and Moris’ prison wedding in March, which was attended by their two young sons, Max and Gabriel, who were conceived at the embassy; and we meet Severine, Shipton’s five-year-old daughter, before she returns with her mother to Australia.
For all the seriousness of its subject matter, Ithaka has some poignant offbeat moments. In one scene, Moris, on the phone with Assange in Belmarsh, walks out to the clip-clop of a passing horse. “That’s a nice sound,” says Julian.
“I thought it was such a beautiful moment,” says Lawrence. “A man in prison listening to the sounds of the outside world and deeply appreciating them, without having listened to 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 broader audience, he cites errol morris, Frederick WisemanJoe Berlinger, Michael Winterbottom and Tom Zubrycki as documentary filmmakers whom he admires.
Assange has at times been a troublesome figure, having spectacularly fallen out with many journalists, including some at The Guardian and The New York Times. But even those who found it difficult now argue forcefully against the jailing of her by US authorities, whose shameful and unpunished behavior he exposed through data leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, who has suffered prison herself. 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 arrested in Afghanistan.
Ithaka: Humanizing Assange through his sympathetic father, his loyal wife and children, and through the specter of a grim maximum-security American prison and a reminder of what secrets WikiLeaks Revealed: He hopes to reach an audience that can help stop the kind of vindictive punishment that WikiLeaks has so often exposed. For Shipton, the journey has certainly been a long one. He now he looks forward to the next adventures and discoveries.