Chris Hedges speaks with film producer and brother of Julian Assange, Gabriel Shipton, on his new film that follows his family’s journey to see Julian freed.
The film Ithaka, the title taken from a poem by C.P Cavafy, chronicles the slow-motion torture and execution of the Australian journalist Julian Assange, currently awaiting extradition to the United States in a high security prison in London. It charts his journey from publisher of the most important revelations of our generation of fraud, war crimes, lies and corruption by the powerful to his refuge for seven years in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London from 2012 to 2019, his seizure and arrest by British police, who enter the embassy to detain him, and harsh imprisonment in Belmarsh prison where he currently fights a U.S. extradition request. It unflinchingly portrays the terrible emotional cost to him and his family, including his father John, his wife Stella, and their two young children. The film pits Assange, his family, and his supporters against the opaque, ruthless and monolithic power of nation states, including Sweden, Great Britain, and the United States, and more importantly the intelligence services that have long sought to silence and crush Julian in retribution. In this episode, Chris Hedges speaks with the film’s producer and Julian Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton.
The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Chris Hedges: The film Ithaka, the title taken from a poem by C. P. Cavafy, chronicles the slow motion torture and execution of the Australian journalist Julian Assange, currently awaiting extradition to the United States in a high security prison in London. It charts his journey from publisher of the most important revelations of our generation of fraud, war crimes, lies and corruption by the powerful, to his refuge for seven years in the Ecuadorian and Embassy in London from 2012 to 2019, his seizure and arrest by British police who entered the embassy to detain him and the harsh imprisonment he’s enduring in Belmarsh high security prison where he is currently fighting a US extradition request.
It unflinchingly portrays the terrible emotional cost to him and his family, including his father, John, his wife Stella, and their two young children. The film directed by Ben Lawrence and produced by Julian’s brother Gabriel Shipton pits Julian and his family and his supporters against the opaque, ruthless and monolithic power of nation states, including Sweden, Great Britain and the United States, and more importantly, the intelligence services that have long sought to silence and crush Julian in retribution.
Julian is largely absent from the film, isolated in the high security prison, and only able to communicate through periodic phone calls, some of which are filmed. In Cavafy’s poem the wanderer Odysseus departs Troy for the long and perilous journey back to Ithaka, replicating the journey John is making to recover and restore the life of his son. Cavafy warns us in the poem not to allow the evil forces that conspire against us, turn us too into monsters, to keep Ithaka always in your mind. Cavafy writes, “As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon, don’t be afraid of them, you’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon, you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”
Joining me to discuss Ithaka is Gabriel Shipton. So I told you before we started, Gabriel, I think what makes the film is your father whose, every question he gets asked is just elliptical and profound and wonderfully off the mark from I think what the questioner intended. But I know the impetus for the film came from a visit you made with your brother, which was quite distressing. He was in the medical unit on suicide watch, and we should be clear that when you’re in the medical unit of Belmarsh prison, it doesn’t look anything like a hospital ward, I think they call it the hell ward, if I remember correctly.
Gabriel Shipton: Yeah, that’s right.
Chris Hedges: But let’s start from there.
Gabriel Shipton: Well, that was in 2019. Julian had been taken from his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in April of that year, he was taken by the UK police and put in the maximum-security prison at Belmarsh. And during that period he was, as you said, kept in the health wing, which the prisoners call the hell wing, and it’s the place where you have the most suicidal, chronically ill, terminally ill prisoners. The prisoner in the cell next door to Julian actually had no arms and no legs, people dying of cancer. It is an incredibly depressing place even within the prison system there.
So it was at that time that I went to see him with John Pilger, and my father, John Shipton, and I had never seen him in the state that I found him there that day. I’d never seen him like that before. He was, even in the darkest times in the Ecuadorian embassy when everything was being surveilled, the microphones, high definition cameras, murder plots, the CIA murder plots, even at those times when there was these forces, and you could feel them inside the Ecuadorian Embassy when you were there, Julian would have to turn on a jammer in when you went to see him to jam the microphones. So there was that very much, you could feel the surveillance, you could feel the forces that were surveilling him and watching him. And even at that time, Julian was not like I saw him that day in the prison.
And so after that visit, it was an intense two-hour visit with John Pilger and my father. And after that visit, I left the prison that day thinking that I might not see him again. He was that bad that I thought this could be the last time that I ever see Julian. And that sort of set me on this, how do I contribute to the campaign to free him? And I’m a film producer, usually I produce scripted drama films.
And so I started to think about a film, how could we tell his side of the story, tell our side of the story, the family’s side of the story, and Julian’s side of the story in an emotional way, using traditional storytelling really to take people on a journey, and not just a regular documentary with interviews and things like that, but really take people on an emotional journey because I believe that’s how people connect… We connect as humans, that’s how we connect, I think best with these stories as human beings first and then we start to think, if we have that emotional connection, we start to really analyze and think about the situation that’s going on.
So at that time, John, my father was traveling around Europe, going from place to place, meeting with supporters, meeting with the grassroots, doing interviews all over Europe. He was going into parliaments and really on the road all the time. So we started to follow John. And I think that was in August, 2019, we started to follow John with a single camera, our cinematographer, Niels Ladefoged, he and John would basically be attached at the hip and travel around the place and Niels captured all this beautiful intimate footage with John. And so that’s really how we started with the film. And it was from then on, almost a year later that the director, Ben Lawrence, came on board and we’ve sort of really ramped things up into the main hearing, which was in October of 2020. So that’s when we sort of really ramped things up and got more cameras on to really cover and document this historical moment in history. And these two people who were at the center of this historical trial, John, my father, and Stella Assange, who’s now Julian’s wife.
Interestingly, when we started filming Stella was still Julian’s secret family, nobody knew that Stella and Julian had two children and that they had been in a relationship. And so it was only through some court documents that the judge refused to withhold Stella’s name, which led to Stella coming out as it were and stepping into the spotlight and becoming an unequal advocate for Julian as she is today, she’s incredible. And we covered a lot of that journey for her. We followed her during that period, and that’s all in the film as well. So it’s sort of, as things unfolded, the film changed shape, it was going to be a single person, single character sort of journey and then Stella came forth and we really wanted to show that side of the story too, because it’s a really nice way to humanize Julian and really learn about Julian through the people who love him.
Usually we understand Julian through, or the public understand Julian through the headlines, through interviews that he’s done. Julian’s often the antagonist in these interviews, and so it’s through those interviews that the public understand him. But we understand Julian, his family understand Julian as a loving father, a husband, a son, a brother who has dorky jokes, who can’t dance and all and these sorts of things. So these were really nice ways to use these journeys to really humanize Julian and show a different side of him that the public has never seen before.
Chris Hedges: I want to pick up on that word humanize because it’s important. I think part of the campaign against Julian is not only to demonize him, isolate him three years now in Belmarsh prison, seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, but to make sure that he is dehumanized, that any other side of Julian other than what is presented by the dominant media narrative is shut out. And I saw that as one of the great benefits of the film. The other powerful element of the film I think, and I know because I teach in a prison, is that when a close family member is incarcerated, in some sense, the family on the outside is incarcerated as well. And I think that you pick that up, that kind of stress that whether it’s in prison visits or phone calls or constant worrying and preoccupation, you see it with Stella about, “How are you, how is your health?” And I think that that film did a very good job of dealing with both of those two issues.
Gabriel Shipton: Yeah, so this dehumanization of Julian, it really serves the persecution of Julian. It allows the public to switch off. This isn’t happening to a human being. People can say, “Well…” Julian hasn’t been able to attend his own court proceedings since January, 2021. He applies to attend the court proceeding and the applications are refused, not given a reason. And this is really to take Julian from view, take him from view. The classic photos that often appear of Julian are the ones of him traveling to and forth from the prison to the court. And even those moments have been taken away. He’s been dehumanized to that level that those photos inside the prison van have been taken away. He has also, part of that-
Chris Hedges: They blocked the windows, they colored the windows over so photographers couldn’t shoot in, is that correct?
Gabriel Shipton: Well, the photographers hold up the camera and the flash goes in, but they can’t really see, but you can get a photo, that’s those photos of Julian with a long beard, with his hand signs and things like that, they’re from the prison van that goes back and forth from the court. But he hasn’t been allowed to attend his own court proceedings in person since that date. And yet that’s part of this process of dehumanization that it allows for this persecution. It’s one of the elements of this persecution, his dehumanization. So yeah, it was really important for us to really lean into this humanistic side of this story and humanize Julian in that sense.
When you talk about the families who are suffering or how the families experience the incarceration of Julian, and Stella talks about going to visit Julian and the procedure that her and her children have to go through to enter the visitor’s area, and it is oppressive. And there’s two little children in this, a three and a five year old whose mouths are searched, who have sniffer dogs sniffing at her hair. A big German shepherd dog comes up to the child and sniffs the back of their hair. So these sort of moments, it has an effect. It has an effect on the family, it has an effect on these children. And I think it’s deliberate, it’s very deliberate that Julian’s being kept in a maximum-security prison. It’s very deliberate that his family has to go through this procedure. They have to feel this persecution as well as Julian, it’s not equal to what Julian’s going through, but as you say, the families of those who are incarcerated are in a way incarcerated as well.
Chris Hedges: There’s a moment in the film where John, your father, expresses the fear that they’re trying to kill Julian. And I know the family has always been very reluctant to speak about the psychological and medical condition of your brother. However, in the court proceedings, there was much that was revealed about his physical and psychological state. And I don’t want to push you too hard on this, but at least if you can relate the information that came out in court, because there’s a clear deterioration and I think many of us feel that’s by design.
Gabriel Shipton: Well, I can describe it how I observe it when I go and see Julian, or I saw him last October. I don’t get to see him that often, obviously our family’s been torn apart. So I live in Australia, so whenever I’m in the UK I make sure that I go to see him at the prison, obviously. But the gradual deterioration over the years that he’s been kept in there is very, very obvious to me. Physical, his physical wellbeing, his mental wellbeing, as well as the expert testimony, expert witness testimony.
But yeah, over the years you can see that he is in gradual decline and he obviously had this stroke, minor stroke at the end of last year. And the effects of that, it doesn’t just go away. This minor stroke is evidence that this whole never ending procedure, these oppressive prison conditions are really taking its toll on his body physically, that that has pushed him to have this sort of episode.
So that’s how I see it. When I go and visit him, we try and have a laugh, we try and joke and we try and talk about lighter things or I know I do. Obviously we always tell him about what’s going on in the world, who said to say hello, which of his old friends that we’ve met around the place. But those visits are precious times when we can sort of be together as we once were and joke and laugh and try and forget all the troubles that exist around him.
Chris Hedges: I just want to list some of the examples of his deterioration that were made public in the court. And that was distressing behavior, hallucinations, I think banging his head against the wall at one point, calling the Samaritan hotline, which is about suicide. He’s lost, I believe, quite a bit of weight. There were moments in the video proceedings where he, it appeared, not quite sure of where he was. I think this is what happened to anyone who was under this kind of stress. We see what isolation does to normal healthy people in a prison system, and everyone of course has a breaking point. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has called the conditions under which Julian is living, a torture. He’s defined it as torture. And I wondered if you could address the issue of how the UK prison system is configuring an environment that essentially perpetuates this kind of pressure.
Gabriel Shipton: I mean, Nils Melzer also said, it was a slow motion murder before our eyes, is what was happening to Julian, that’s how he described it. Those are not my words, those are his. The prison system in the UK, so Belmarsh is a maximum-security prison. There are 800 or so prisoners there. 20% of the prisoners in Belmarsh are convicted murderers, they’re the most violent prisoners in all the UK. Julian is one of two prisoners there who are on remand. So remand, it’s a bit of a technical term, but basically what it means is Julian’s not convicted of any crime. So he’s been present in that prison, it will be four years in April and he hasn’t been convicted of a crime, he’s not serving a sentence, he’s just been kept there at the request of the US DOJ. So it’s this torturous system that’s been set up to break Julian, this never ending legal process. Julian doesn’t know, he could be in that prison for another three or four years or he just has no idea, or he could be out on an airplane tomorrow being extradited to the US.
So it’s this system that’s been set up to keep Julian in a permanent state of anxiety of whether he will be extradited to a country whose intelligence community has plotted to kill him, whose secretary of state called for him to be droned, that is been held over Julian’s head every day, every single day. And this is the system that has been set up, the system that has been set up to really break Julian, break his mind and break his body. And I think that evidence that, obviously it’s very hard for me to talk about that expert testimony and those events that you brought up, but that’s the evidence of this system working against Julian, and same with the physical ailments that he has, the weight loss these, the minor stroke and these other things, these are all symptoms of this slow motion murder that Julian is going through.
Chris Hedges: So do you think that the persecution of Julian is designed to send a message to any other journalist that might attempt to do what he did?
Gabriel Shipton: Yeah, I certainly do believe that that is the purpose of Julian’s persecution. If you look at all the support that Julian has around the world, you have basically every Latin American leader is now calling for Julian to be released. The Australian Prime Minister has made representations to the Biden administration, and said so publicly, that enough is enough, Julian has suffered enough and that he should be released, those are the words of the prime minister. Every major civil society, NGO, the press freedom NGO, the human rights NGO in the US has called on the Garland DOJ to drop the charges against Julian. You have those five legacy newspapers that collaborated with WikiLeaks from all around the world, the New York Times being the US leader there, calling on the Garland DOJ to drop the charges against Julian and saying that he should be released. But Julian still remains in prison.
And so this message is, I believe, heard very clearly around the world that even if you have the support of six, seven world leaders and counting, all the major newspapers around the world, every single civil society press freedom and human rights group that we can do this to you, we can take away your rights, Julian, I think has over a hundred lawyers, but it doesn’t seem to matter because the people who are doing this to Julian can act with impunity. And it is a show of strength, it is them showing us that if you expose our secrets, that this is what will happen to you. We will take away every single right you have, we will destroy you, you will have to spend millions and millions of dollars defending yourself and it won’t come to naught. So I think it is an exceptional execution of this example that has been shown to the world that this is what will happen if you go against us.
Chris Hedges: There’s a moment in the film you filmed during the extradition hearings, Julian is not extradited, not because Judge Barasiter finds any of the charges against him specious or wrong, but because of his grave psychological condition and the fact that he is a suicide risk, the United States appealed that decision and that appeal was upheld, in essence overturning her decision. And were now waiting to see if Julian is allowed to appeal the other points where she ruled against him.
But there’s a moment there where after that ruling there’s a picture of Stella at home and she has candles on the table and she is apparently awaiting for Julian to be released on bail. I never thought Julian would be released on bail, ever, for a moment. And I’m curious about that moment, what you thought, what the family thought given the long legal farce. I mean, the fact that he was filmed by UC Global, the Spanish security firm working for the CIA, all his meetings with his lawyers were filmed and turned over to the CIA, eviscerating attorney/client privilege alone should have invalidated the trial, and then there are all sorts of other strange anomalies given the fact that he’s charged under the Espionage Act and he is not a US citizen. But what did you think at that moment? Did you believe that he was coming out on bail? And I’m curious, I’m really curious about what everyone was feeling at that moment.
Gabriel Shipton: Well, I’m quite similar to you, quite pessimistic about what’s going on and Julian’s persecution and the forces that are behind it and how much power they have and how they wield it, but that doesn’t make me less of a human being. We always want the best to happen and if there’s even a slight glimmer of hope that Julian might come home, then we grab onto that and for better or for worse, we want to believe that that could be a possibility. And I think we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we didn’t believe that Julian would one day be reunited with his family. So in that sense, I think you have to plan. If Julian was released that day and there was nothing to welcome him home, I think that would’ve been not a very nice welcome back. But it is a-
Chris Hedges: Yeah, it was a very moving moment.
Gabriel Shipton: It’s a rollercoaster, it’s an emotional rollercoaster and sometimes you wonder is that part of raising the hope and then crushing it? Sometimes you wonder, is that part of the persecution, trying to fool the emotions of the people who love Julian, the activists who are supporting him all around the world to really make them feel that this could be resolved and then crush that feeling.
So I guess at the moment there’s, I don’t know if you saw a report by Australian journalist John Lyons, he was quite a prominent journalist in Australia and he was on the ABC, which is the public broadcaster in Australia, on New Year’s Day. And one of his predictions for 2023 was that Julian would be released unconditionally and that he expects an announcement to come in the next two months. So it’s moments like that, that when you hear those things you can’t help but grab onto them and really feel that the work that Stella’s been doing, the work that John’s been doing, the work that everyone’s been doing around the world, all the activists, journalists reporting on it, politicians is actually having an effect. So yeah, I am pessimistic but also I can’t help but have some faith that Julian will one day be reunited with us.
Chris Hedges: Just to close, you and John, I think, will be in the United States, when? And these will be showings of the film, is that correct?
Gabriel Shipton: Yes, that’s right. We will be starting at the beginning of March on the West Coast and we will be showing, traveling with the film, doing event screenings all over the US during March and April, and really just getting in front of people and talking about the film, answering questions, just creating awareness around Julian’s case all around the country. We did a similar tour in June of 2021 and 2023, we’re going to have another go and really just take it to the people in that sense. John always says we can’t rely on the mainstream media to do it for us, so we’ve got to really go out there and just talk to people one at a time, tell them about Julian’s case and get people talking about it again, and Ithaka is a great tool for that.
Chris Hedges: And where can people find that schedule, on what website?
Gabriel Shipton: Ithaka.movie is the film website, Ithaka.movie, and you can find all the US screenings will be up there shortly.
Chris Hedges: Great. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, Darian Jones, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.