by Filmink Staff

The documentary follows John Shipton, Assange’s father as he negotiates media scrutiny and legal wrangles during his son’s UK extradition trial last year.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of courage in this story that at time of writing is still making daily news.

Shipton, like his famous son, is an eloquent character, unprepared to play the media game. A deep thinker, well-read and driven by powerful convictions, here he clashes with reporters (even Lawrence) as he struggles with matters of life, death, freedom, and diplomacy. Also featured is Assange’s fiancée, Stella Moris, in a riveting and important human story that sharply conveys a family’s passion and their suffering in the face of gigantic odds.

Ithaka is edited by Karen Johnson, produced by Gabriel Shipton and Adrian Devant, with cinematography by Niels Ladefoged.

We spoke with Ben Lawrence on the eve of the film’s premiere at the Sydney Film Festival.

John Shipton, Julian Assange’s seventy-six-year-old father is at the centre of Ithaka. But he seems to be suffering under the gaze of your lens a lot of the time. Tell us about that?

“He’s the least likely person you would want to put out there in front of a camera.”

When we see him out in the street welcoming supporters and dealing – sometimes impatiently – with an avalanche of questions coming at him from reporters, some sympathetic some not he seems…

“I think he’s energised by it as much as [he finds it odious]. But it was depleting for a person [that age] to deal with all that and he would come home… I would be there with a camera asking more questions!”

How did you get involved with the story?

“Gabriel Shipton, Julian’s brother and John Shipton’s son contacted me in April 2020. They had already been filming with a single camera for about eight months. He told me that the trial in the UK [arguing to extradite Assange to the USA] would start in September. Within a month I was on a plane. All crew were out of the UK.”

It’s a complex, messy story that stretches across so many dimensions, but for the casual viewer Ithaka gives a sharp clarity to what is at stake.

“Yes. It suits the powers that be that Assange’s [suffering] go on and this [legal battle] continue. It’s a very public process. Julian Assange’s Wikileaks publications… no one had ever really done anything like that, not at that level. If you were to ever think about publishing US secrets now [after Assange], you would think twice. But I think since we started filming, the show of support for Assange has increased.”

The film is very immediate. It’s an observational document. 

“Yes. We started with a [more conventional biographical approach]. We had a dozen sit down interviews. I felt the strength of the film was the present tense. The unfolding nature of this journey… So I used the news archive to convey exposition.”

The mystery at the core of the film is why did John Shipton step forward after all these years to help a son that in a certain way ‘he did not know…’

“I would [agree] but I never really resolved [why he came forward]. It’s not any one thing. I think it involves who John is. Did he do it to make up for lost time? I think there is a sense of purpose to it; a sense of nobleness to it, that appeals to John.

“He hopes someone would do the same for him. They connected in a very deep way with Julian’s work. The emotional side of it is there… but it’s very deep and it’s too sacred to discuss in a way. In him trying to explain his reasons [for getting involved], he talked about the Moby Dick story. He said that [there were things] too sacred to bring up from the depths because when you do, you destroy them.

“He talked about the way he processed the world which is through story.”

What was that first contact with John like?

“I met and told him my ideas for the film, which were on this very short document. He came back with a quote from the Bhagavad Ghita…(a Hindi poem).

“So, it was an example of what I was going to get in the interviews…

“I would ask John about his personal life, and he would quote Nietzsche.

“Or he might talk about how whale hunters strategise!

“This undertaking he has embarked upon fits into that; there’s a philosophy behind it; there’s a belief system.”

The centrepiece of the film is this electrifying straight to camera interview with Shipton. He is clearly uncomfortable at times. Still, the questions were commonplace in a way.

“His responses probably drew me more in. It was difficult to get past those moments. He saw some things as irrelevant. Or inappropriate. What surprised me was how fascinated I became with his story. How much of him answering a question would give me not what I wanted but something else entirely unexpected, and far more intriguing. Even in going through the rushes and formulating and shaping the film, I would sit there and listen. I would have to consider them for a long time. For many days. And think about what he was saying.”

Being confronted with that alters the filmmaking process?

“Generally, you sit down with someone [for an interview]. I am not going to say they are ‘practised’, but they are far more willing to talk to you. You kind of know the ground rules. John’s process of describing the world is to allow you to see something from a new perspective. That’s why it took me a long time to shape the film but also to understand who he was.”

How long was the edit?

“From November 2020 until July 2021. I shot for one hundred days… but someone described those interviews I did with John as ‘wrestling for the narrative’ and in some ways it was. I realised that John is in this world more than most of us. He is present and he is thinking about the questions that I am asking him.

“But he’s coming at it as someone who doesn’t exist in the mundane and the minutiae and the small chat. John wants to talk about where civilisations have been and where they are going and things like that. John, like a lot of people was acutely aware when there’s a camera around. His relationship to that is to present himself as someone who does not want to buy into that.

“He’s wanting to be a part of the story I want to tell… But he’s wanting to tell a story he feels he’s spent his life considering. These are bigger things; they are about human existence; about his own mortality…  I feel like he’s constantly grappling with those things and thinking deeply about them. Most of us just want to struggle through the day and don’t want to think about them.

“Thank God there’s people like that in the world.”

Ithaka is in cinemas April 21, 2022


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