The poem Ithaka, written in 1911 by the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy, opens with the lines: “As you set out for Ithaka / hope that your journey is a long one / full of adventure, full of discovery.” It has given a new documentary about Julian Assange both its title and, in many ways, its theme. The film follows Assange’s 76-year-old father, John Shipton, on his own long and winding road to try to save his son from US jail on espionage charges, resulting from the state secrets revealed by WikiLeaks, the organisation Assange founded.
The film – made by Australian director Ben Lawrence and produced by Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s brother – is released in Britain at a crucial stage in the journey. Two weeks ago, home secretary Priti Patel gave the go-ahead for the extradition of Assange, who has been held for the last three years in Belmarsh, the high security prison in London, after spending seven years holed up in the embassy of Ecuador until his arrest in 2019. His legal team are appealing against the latest decision and the battle will be fought over 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 virtually the same age and for someone of my generation he really made a mark,” says director Lawrence in a video call from Sydney. “As an avid reader of the news, I was fascinated by the story. So when the chance came to get involved I was interested straight away.”
Shipton was not part of his son’s life from the time 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 fight to have him released. We see Shipton outside the Old Bailey in 2020 as the judge makes the initial decision, since overturned, to halt the extradition on the grounds that it could lead to Assange’s suicide. Footage shows him giving countless interviews and talks at rallies “because Julian can no longer speak for himself”.
Shipton, who spent his life in the building trade, was – like his son – always on the maverick side. We hear how when he was 11, at a boarding school in Bathurst, New South Wales, he wrote lines from Voltaire on the blackboard while his classmates were at chapel. He was an anti-war activist in his youth when Australia was fighting alongside the US in Vietnam, so there is a symmetry: WikiLeaks’s best-known revelations concern atrocities committed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the treatment of unconvicted prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. “I never found a war I liked,” says Shipton, remarkably cheerfully, via video from Sheffield, where the film is premiering at the documentary festival.
The film captures Shipton on his many travels. “I’ve got two passports full of stamps – that’s my reckoning sheet,” he says. “Geneva eight times, Berlin, Oslo, Bergen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Gothenburg. It has been exhausting, so when Gabriel and I were travelling across the US and we got a bit down at the end of the day, we used to play the Sean Connery recording of Ithaka on YouTube, with that beautiful brogue that he has.” His current literary companion, he says, is Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo.
Some of the most remarkable scenes in the film centre on 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 round his tiny room and having a low-key Christmas meal with his father and Moris. “It’s the embassy’s footage from the security company,” says Lawrence. It contains scenes of Assange’s meetings with his lawyers and doctors – and was supposedly being hand-delivered to the US every 15 days. “Stella was approached by one of the security guards who warned her about it,” he adds. “She stopped going into the embassy at that point. Really grubby stuff.”
Moris discusses it in Ithaka: “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 it is 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 gave a boost to the movement. It really forms a background to the film, in that it is someone stepping in from the outside. I think he offers a new entry point, as does John himself. It feels like one of a whole number of doorways that you can enter the story.” Shipton is equally effusive about Melzer, who is from Switzerland, calling him “an angel”.
Also crucial are the interviews Shipton gives in the Chelsea house the crew shared during the extradition hearing. They are sometimes conducted with reluctance and irritation at the end of a day’s campaigning and before he has 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 down. “He keeps burrowing away.” Shipton has still not seen the completed film. “I’m a bit frightened of it. I don’t want to watch myself stumbling over sentences or pontificating. I’m just happy if other people see it and understand what we as a family are attempting to do.”
Some of Assange’s high-profile supporters feature, too. Daniel Ellsberg, who faced jail himself 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 is footage of the unsuccessful attempts to obtain a last-minute pardon from him. Also featured is Assange and Moris’s prison wedding in March, attended by their two small 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.
For all the seriousness of its subject, Ithaka has some touching offbeat moments. In one scene, Moris, on the phone to Assange in Belmarsh, steps outside and the clip-clop of a passing horse can be heard. “That’s a nice sound,” Julian remarks.
“I thought it was such a beautiful moment,” says Lawrence. “A man incarcerated listening to the sounds of the outside world and having a profound appreciation of them, having not heard them for so long.” In another scene, Shipton reflects: “It’s 11 years since Julian was in the company of a tree or a plant or a caterpillar or a butterfly.” Lawrence hopes that this less traditional approach will help the film reach a wider audience – he cites Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, Joe Berlinger, Michael Winterbottom and Tom Zubrycki as documentary-makers he admires.
Assange has at times been a problematic figure, one who has fallen out spectacularly with many journalists - not least some at the Guardian and the New York Times. But even those who found him difficult now argue strongly against his incarceration by US authorities whose shameful – and unpunished – behaviour he exposed through the data leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, who has suffered imprisonment herself. This behaviour 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 – by humanising Assange through his likable dad, his loyal wife and his children, and through the spectre of a grim American supermax jail and a reminder of what secrets WikiLeaks revealed – hopes to reach an audience that can play a part in halting the kind of vindictive punishment WikiLeaks has so often exposed. For Shipton, the journey has certainly been a long one. Now he awaits the next adventures and discoveries.
• Ithaka is released in the UK on 8 July, and is streaming on ABC iview in Australia.