FNE DocBloc: Julian Assange Fills the Great Hall at Jihlava IDFF

    Julian Assange Julian Assange photo: www.dokument-festival.com

    JIHLAVA: Taking risks is not the traditional path for most film festivals. Sponsors and audiences often prove averse to such a move. But in the case of the fifth annual Inspiration Forum at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, the risk of inviting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange paid off for audiences, the festival, and the founder/curator of the event, Filip Remunda.

    “I wasn’t sure how it would go,” Remunda told FNE following Assange’s appearance via a Skype link. Following criticism over the festival’s invitation to Assange in the Czech press, organizers were concerned over what kind of guest Assange might be. Would he be arrogant? Would he respond with clipped or dismissive answers? Would he live up to the worst that his critics had to say about him?

    In the end, it was a thoughtful, intelligent, informed, and balanced interview: provocative in the best possible way. The main screening hall of the festival was overflowing with some of the audience standing in the aisles. As Assange noted, in his response to the criticism in the Czech press, there were 600 people in the cinema salle at 4 pm on a Thursday afternoon. In this case, risk (and controversy) had its rewards. Remunda shared the stage with festival director Marek Hovorka, the two taking turns at asking questions before opening the floor up to questions from the audience.

    Assange was unsparing in his criticism of the media in general, and most of those people sitting in the large section of the hall reserved for the press refrained from applauding Assange at the end of the presentation, as well as during the few times mid-interview when the audience broke out into applause. However it was with no little irony that festival attendees noted that the festival had asked that the press and public not make recordings of the presentation.

    Assange commented repeatedly on the amount of money the British government has spent in monitoring him, with his asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London having passed the three year mark over the summer. Speculation that he might be ready to crack seemed far-fetched. When asked about his lock-down inside the embassy, he responded that the human spirit is very adaptable, and that he has been able to continue his work through a wide network of colleagues around the world.

    One of that global network is a member of the Russian band Pussy Riot, Marija Aljochina, also known as Masha, who was in the audience and is also scheduled to speak as part of the Inspiration Forum. The two are collaborating on a new human rights organization, it was revealed when Masha came up onto the stage to greet Assange.

    Remunda, whose early editions of Inspiration Forum drew small but polite audiences, has tapped into the Czech zeitgeist with this year’s guests. The third guest of Inspiration Forum is a man who literally stumbled into his 15 seconds of fame: Osama Abdhul Mohsen, the Syrian refugee who was tripped by a Hungarian journalist as he was carrying his small son and running from Hungarian police. The discussion is likely to hit a nerve with the Czech public, who have seen ugly displays of xenophobia in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

    So what does all of this have to do with a documentary festival? In the case of Jihlava, the festival’s eternally youthful spirit of curiosity and breaking the rules created the ideal foundation for a forum dedicated to philosophizing and exploring ideas: with ideas becoming the inspiration for documentary filmmakers. Remunda will have a challenge to top or even repeat this year’s success, but it’s clear that he has found the formula and, now, the public attention that might accomplish that goal.