It is, without question, one of the most bizarre—and side-splittingly funny—movie scenes you’ll see all year. Midway through Laura Poitras’ documentary Risk, which provides an illuminating (and confounding) look at WikiLeaks’ controversial founder Julian Assange, pop diva Lady Gaga shows up. Gaga chose to visit Assange at the urging of rapper M.I.A., who provided the musical score to Assange’s talk program World Tomorrow, which aired on the Kremlin propaganda network Russia Today, or RT. WikiLeaks heavily promoted the five-hour meeting of the minds on its social-media accounts, and the encounter was later adapted into an Australian musical (really).
Gaga arrives at the Ecuadorian embassy in London dressed like a witch, complete with black pointy hat, black dress, and fiery red hair. It is October 2012, just four months after Assange was granted asylum at the embassy while dodging sexual-assault allegations in Sweden as well as extradition threats from the U.S., where numerous lawmakers have called for him to be tried for treason. The publisher had presumably hoped the meeting would lead to a groundswell of support from Gaga’s considerable online fan base.
“This is your room?” she asks, horrified after surveying his cramped, cream-colored space. Gaga then sits down in a chair across from Assange and, after looking him up and down, suggests that he change out of his snazzy suit. She goes into his closet and emerges with a white T-shirt. “Put on a dirty fucking T-shirt,” she says, “like a rebel.” Assange agrees, and changes into the tee.
Then Gaga begins filming her interview with Assange whilst spread across an armchair, her little camera raised in the air. “What’s your favorite food?” she asks him. The hacktivist goes into a snobbish spiel about a visit he once took to Malaysia before course-correcting: “Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person,” he answers, chuckling.
The next hard-hitting question from the music dynamo formerly known as Stefani Germanotta: “Who is after you?” She wants him to name every federal agency from every country that’s after him. When he lists all the ones from the U.S., she requests that he list all the agencies from Sweden and Australia. Assange obliges, and an uninterested Gaga concludes: “So a lot of fucking people.”
There’s more. “Do you ever feel like just fucking crying—even when you’re happy?” she inquires. “Why… does it matter how I feel?” offers Assange. “Do you love your mom? What about your dad?”
“My dad is much more complex,” he says.
“So… nothing like you,” Gaga fires back in her signature affected delivery, oozing insouciance.
At the New York premiere of Risk at the Whitney Museum, the audience laughed hysterically all the way through the cringe-worthy sequence. But Poitras, the Oscar-winning director of the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, doesn’t see it as just mere comedy relief.
“I think it’s such a great moment,” Poitras tells The Daily Beast. “She gets so much by pushing. When Julian says, ‘I don’t care how I feel,’ that’s such a brilliant moment of insight. Or when he says he’s not a ‘normal person.’”
Poitras, who filmed Assange on and off for six years—from 2010 to 2016—didn’t shoot the Gaga footage, which was done by another member of her team, but enjoys it nonetheless.
“I love the scene for its humor, I love the scene for its insight, for how surreal it is, and what it reveals about both of them,” adds Poitras. “[Julian] says, ‘I went to Malaysia once…’ and says, ‘Let’s not pretend for a moment I’m a normal person.’ I think it’s true that he’s not a normal person. An example of that is he’s in this small space and there are police everywhere, and he decided to sleep in this area that’s right on the other side of the cops. Wouldn’t it be a more ‘normal’ thing to find a safe, quiet place away from all that?”
Risk will hit select theaters on May 5 and will air on Showtime later this summer. As for Gaga and WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army private who stole the lion’s share of the classified U.S. files released by the organization—including Reykjavik 13, the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghan War Logs, the Iraq War Logs, the Guatanamo Bay Files, etc., reportedly lip-synched along to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” while extracting the top-secret files. She will be released on May 17 after having her sentence for violating the Espionage Act commuted by former President Obama.
The rest of our wide-ranging interview with Laura Poitras will run on Thursday, May 4.