Julian Assange is a fugitive from international justice. He is wanted for questioning by Swedish authorities relating to allegations of unlawful coercion, sexual molestation and rape dating back three years. Assange has not yet been charged, that comes later in the Swedish process, but a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Bearing this in mind, it was with no small degree of shock and awe that I digested this morning’s news regarding Assange’s bizarro appointment to the jury of the Raindance Film Festival. I could have choked on my Weetabix. To paraphrase Leonardo DiCaprio’s repugnant slave-trader in Django Unchained, they already had my curiosity, but now they have my attention.
The festival doesn’t certainly doesn’t need this kind of ballyhoo. Founded in 1992, Raindance has slowly but surely cemented its reputation as one of the very best film festivals in the UK. A killer showcase for new independent talent from around the globe, it was the first place in the country to screen game-changers like Pulp Fiction, Memento and Ben Wheatley’s incendiary debut picture, Down Terrace. This year’s slate includes 100 new feature length films and 150 shorts, and promises to be the one of their most exciting line-ups ever.
The jury’s pretty brillliant too, with such luminaries as Portishead singer Beth Gibbons and YouTube sensation Charlie McDonnell weighing in on the programme. As for Assange, well, perusing the Raindance website this afternoon, they sound jolly pleased to have the Wikileaks founder on board. The blurb describes him as “a subtle political thinker, a radical democrat and an audacious dissident of the digital age.” High praise indeed, although there’s nary a mention of his site’s involvement with the incarceration of Chelsea Manning nor the sexual assault claims he faces in Sweden.
Regarding the latter, the details of the criminal case against Assange are harrowing but important. The devil is in the detail. To recap, it is alleged that Assange forced two separate women into having unprotected sex against their wishes over a period of 10 days in August 2010. One of the victims accused Assange of deliberately tampering with a condom. Another claimed that she awoke one morning to find Assange already mid-coitus, once again without protection. The excellent and experienced Guardian reporter Nick Davies provides a full and very precise account of the accusations here. It’s shocking, abhorrent stuff. So much so that I wonder if Assange’s co-jurors realise the full, sordid extent of the charges?
These days Assange finds himself languishing in the Ecuadorian embassy in deepest, darkest Belgravia, like some kind of troglodytic playboy, having exhausted all possible legal recourse in his efforts to avoid extradition. The final nail in that particular coffin was struck on 30 May 2012, when the Supreme Court saw fit to dismiss his latest appeal by a majority of 5-2.
You can see why a life of cushion-walled, ambassadorial privilege would suit someone like Assange. His supporters believe, probably with some degree of validity, that by relinquishing Assange to the Swedish government, you might as well just serve him up to the United States on a silver platter. Given that the US would almost certainly try and make a play for espionage charges, the maximum penalty for which is death, it’s pretty easy to comprehend how Assange would try his level best to stay put and keep schtum.
All very well, but how the hell did he end up on the jury of the UK’s leading celebration of independent film? According to Raindance chairman Elliot Grove, “We choose our jurors because they are interesting people.” That’s what he told the BBC at this morning’s press launch. Well, if it’s “interesting” the festival’s after, then they’ve well and truly hit the motherlode with Assange, though not necessarily for the reasons laid out in their own, rather fawning tribute. “Alleged rapist” certainly makes Assange sound interesting, alright, though admittedly it’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a press release.
(Apparently DVDs of the titles under consideration at this year’s event will be dispatched directly to the embassy so that Assange can fulfill his obligations as a responsible juror. It’ll be like Lovefilm for the stateless. Also, a potential piracy nightmare – they do realise that he illicitly posts other people’s material online for a living, right?)
Of course, Assange is innocent until proven guilty. No one’s questioning his right to take the gig. But the irony of him stepping up to take part in a jury of all things, when he doesn’t have the guts to face one himself is beyond the pale. The charges facing Assange are extremely serious, and his continued refusal to face his accusers in a court room represents an affront to rape victims everywhere.
Assange is not entirely to blame for this latest debacle. His appointment to the Raindance jury (“The Raindance Jury” – it sounds like a bloody John Grisham novel) is a calamitous lapse of judgement on behalf of the festival organisers. By publicly standing by Assange and endorsing his credentials to such a slavish extent, Raindance effectively throws its lot in with an alleged sex offender who continuously evades due process. Why do we keep indulging him?
The dignified thing would be for Assange to quietly step aside. His appearance can only draw attention from the film-makers in competition. Sadly, dignity is not one of Assange’s more pronounced traits. Only last week, he appeared in a satirical YouTube video reinforcing his proposed run for the Australian senate by donning a fright wig and belting out John Farnham’s power ballad The Voice at the top of his strained lungs. So much for the “subtle political thinker” endorsed by Raindance. Assange’s callousness in light of the allegations made against him is staggering. His neverending quest for attention a mystery.
The Raindance Film Festival runs from 25th September to 6th October at the Vue Piccadilly Circus.