Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum Review: Where the Truth Lies?

Can the people who aren't in the film say as much as the people who are?

9 mins read

Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum
(Canada, 105 min.)
Dir. Jamie Kastner


What do we talk about when we talk about Jacob Appelbaum? Anyone willing to spill a few words about the man might mind themselves talking for hours. Appelbaum is a hacker, free speech advocate, journalist, and cybersecurity expert. He may also be a rapist, traitor, and sexual deviant if one believes everything on the Internet. Jamie Kastner’s documentary Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum provides an intriguing conversation starter about the fight for freedom and speech and journalistic integrity whether one admires or loathes Appelbaum—or simply can’t know what to make of him. Just be wary of what you say about him or the film on Twitter.

The documentary sits comfortably in the clandestine fashion of films like Citizenfour (2014), Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning exposé about Edward Snowden’s courageous whistleblowing, and Risk (2016), Laura Poitras’ (her again!) portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Kastner jokes to Appelbaum, who appeared in both those films, that such documentaries always start in hotel rooms. So, naturally, Kastner’s film begins in a hotel room after Appelbaum cautiously agrees to meet him after much vetting.

Nobody Wants to Talk admittedly doesn’t have the level of exposé that Poitras’ films have, but it furthers the kind of conversations they invite. Perhaps one of the most interesting points about the film is that Poitras is among the many, many people who declined an interview with Kastner. She’s arguably the smartest and most widely fêted person worldwide who makes these kinds of films, so her reluctance to participate adds to the complicated portrait. It also says a lot considering that Appelbaum tells Kastner that Poitras asked him to vet Snowden at the beginning of Citizenfour. She’s a very credible person who, like many of the people in Applebaum’s circle, would presumably want to bring the truth to light, if one could do so safely.

This is ultimately a film about trying to find a semblance of truth amid a sea of seemingly reliable sources, redacted tidbits, half-truths, and outright lies. But what one actually makes of Jacob Appelbaum adds another layer to the conversation. He’s an enigma.

Besides the hotel rooms, Kastner’s film shares another facet with the other whistleblower docs: tricky characters. Poitras’ Risk proves an intriguing film because Assange is a difficult character. Similarly, Ben Lawrence’s Ithaka, about Assange’s father John Shipton, proves that hard-to-like characters run in the family. Hackers and computer nerds aren’t usually known for their charisma. However, Kastner’s film illustrates that Appelbaum made a name for himself as an exception in that regard.

Touring Berlin with Appelbaum, where he lives in self-imposed exile, and travelling with him to locales like Tel Aviv and various hotel rooms in between, Kastner gets a fuller story. It just depends if Appelbaum feels he can answer a question. He proves evasive and declines many questions citing security and/or fear of prosecution. The array of phones, laptops, and other devices in his apartment boggle a Luddite’s mind. They indicate that this man takes privacy and security very seriously. Perhaps to the point of paranoia, although a distressing story about a dead cat proves convincing.

Culling together Applebaum’s story and the words of the very few people willing to speak about him, the film recounts how the hacker carved a niche as a developer with the Tor Project, a government funded initiative that created avenues for people to browse the web anonymously amid a sea of cyber-surveillance. The talking heads evoke a compelling speaker who knew how to captivate a crowd and command authority.

Appelbaum’s story with the Tor Project takes a turn, however, when he speaks about representing Assange at a 2010 hacker conference. Appelbaum recalls how he became something of an international man of mystery. After that, airport security checks were never the same, he notes. Moreover, colleagues, especially at the Tor Project, didn’t look at him the same way. Leaking government secrets is risky business, especially uploading evidence of war crimes to the Internet.

The few people who do talk about Jacob Appelbaum, however, create a story that suggests he could be in the same conversation as Snowden or Assange. His work uses the power of the web to hold politicians and governments accountable. He faces credible fear of prosecution and tells Kastner about rejecting deals to sell out Assange. The idea that he has something to hide doesn’t add up.

Moreover, the more time Kastner spends with him, the more Appelbaum’s stories crystallize with perspectives of other interviewees. Similarly, an on-the-ground vérité sequence in Tel Aviv lets Kastner’s camera document the daily surveillance the hacker faces, like being shadowed by random guys who don’t even try to camouflage their activity. He’s clearly a person of interest, and Kastner lets viewers watch the fairly quick work that legitimizes Appelbaum’s security fears—but also his work. People wouldn’t be following him if his stories were bogus.

At the same time, there’s a lot about Jacob Appelbaum that gets people talking besides his work. Everyone has stories and opinions about his prolific and varied sex life. There are tales of swinging parties and all sorts of acquired tastes. The interviewees don’t necessarily judge Appelbaum, but they situate his sex life within the climate that brought his downfall. Appelbaum tells how he, like Assange, faced accusations of rape that tarnished his character. The film unpacks an extensive portfolio of online stories and inflammatory tweets that allege a pattern of predatory behaviour. Stories come from close colleagues, too, and people within the hacker network. It’s damning stuff from presumed allies.

But Kastner speaks with journalists who investigated the claims and shattered their credibility. Similarly, people who openly dislike Appelbaum—and ask aloud why Kastner even bothers wasting his time making a documentary about the guy—say the allegations are bogus and have the receipts to prove it. And yet nobody still wants to talk about him. He’s a pariah any way one slices it. The film raises compelling questions about one’s ability to bring the truth to light in an age of polarized and volatile communication.

Nobody Wants to Talk therefore finds a troubling portrait of the selectivity of truth in the misinformation age. People can believe what they want. Alternatively, one can’t fully believe anything when there’s so much information that clouds an easy viewpoint. The film offers a smart reminder of the value of credible journalism and sources. Kastner seems to deliver both here, although with an uneasy portrait that reminds a viewer how making the right choice and the easy one don’t usually go hand in hand. And with so many sources that away, the truth of the matter proves as elusive as Appelbaum himself.

Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum screens at TIFF on June 23 and 26.

It debuts on CBC Gem June 26.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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