“No matter what happens, even if there’s a videotape of it….it was murder.”

Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum

To call Jacob Appelbaum “paranoid” would be understating the situation to a fault. This former colleague of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has lived in self-imposed exile in Berlin for nearly a decade to escape growing heat from US authorities for his hacktivism activities. Operating with multiple jailbroken phones and eyes in the back of his head, Appelbaum continues his advocacy for an open internet and freedom from authoritarian oppression in Jamie Kastner’s doc Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum.

The title is only partial hyperbole as Kastner has only managed to gather a handful of talking heads to ruminate on the subject and often reluctantly (one participant almost leaves mid-interview, ranting in the background about his disdain for Appelbaum and why a film should be made about him at all). While their reasons certainly include the long shadow that the surveillance state has cast on figures like Appelbaum and fellow travelers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, they are also put off by the serious sexual misconduct accusations made against him in 2016 and that continue to percolate on Twitter whenever he dares to make a public appearance.

The film isn’t too interested in litigating the latter charges, only going deep enough to suggest that the accusations may be a tool by bad actors to destroy the reputations of those attempting to speak truth to power. In fact, one of his accusers is demonstrated to have a notable history of accusing various male activists and intellectuals who just happen to be at the forefront of exposing the deep state. The audience is left to decide if this is a mere coincidence.

For most of its runtime, the film struggles to maintain a consistent narrative structure, making wild swings between Appelbaum’s troubled upbringing, his early activism with open-source browser Tor, his work with Julian Assange, and his post-exile activities. It’s all never quite as compelling as the filmmaker seems to think it is and prematurely wears out its welcome. The whole package also lacks a certain polish that leaves the viewer wondering if an early rough cut was released by mistake. I was surprised at the beginning to see that this is a “documentary channel” production and the sometimes amateurish filmmaking that Kastner allows to seep into the final cut almost seems to artificially date the film to a bygone era. Ironic for a film whose subject is engaged in cutting-edge hacking.

In the end, just enough people talk about Jacob Appelbaum, but not enough to make the man particularly documentary worthy. The most intriguing parts involve Julian Assange and his ongoing legal battles which could very well see him extradited to the US where he is accused of espionage (the line between journalism and spying being a precarious one in the online age) and may be imprisoned for life. That’s a doc I’d certainly pay to see, but we’ll likely have to wait for that legal drama to play out before it can be documented. In the meantime, feel free to pair this doc with Citizenfour while you wait.




Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum will stream on CBC Gem starting on June 26  

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