Laura Poitras on Surveillance and Her Edward Snowden Documentary, Citizenfour

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Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

It was just over two weeks ago that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, a you-are-there documentary about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, had its seismic premiere at the New York Film Festival to standing ovations and terrified, appreciative audiences. The film opened in limited release this weekend. Poitras, an acclaimed filmmaker whose previous works My Country, My Country and The Oath have tackled various aspects of the post-9/11 world, has been involved with the Snowden story since the very beginning: Indeed, she was the one the former NSA contractor reached out to anonymously with his initial information. And she was there, in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met her and journalist Glenn Greenwald, filming Snowden’s first revelations, and then continuing to film him as those revelations broke across the world’s headlines. That made the director not just a chronicler and observer, but also part of the story as well — which adds an extra dimension of suspense to Citizenfour. Poitras recently spoke to us about how she got involved with these revelations, how this has affected her personally, and the portrait of Snowden that emerges in her film.

You were there in the room as the Edward Snowden news was breaking all over the world. At what point did you know this would be a film as well?
I had a strong feeling early on, when I was getting these anonymous emails in 2013, that they would be part of something — though I didn’t know exactly what. His emails were pulling me to a space of tension, concern. At the time, I said, “Shouldn’t we have a face-to-face?” He said no. So I thought he would remain anonymous, but that I would have his emails and that at some point I would have documentation as well. Then, sometime in May, I was informed that Snowden intended to come forward as the source for this information. That was a total surprise for me. And things shifted there. I said, “I really want to meet you, and I want to bring my camera.” And he responded, “No, I’m not the story. It should be about the issues.” He was concerned about the risk of a face-to-face meeting. I tried to make the argument that his motivation mattered to me, and that it would matter to the public. And that I would make sure that the reporting would continue, if something were to happen. Obviously, as a filmmaker, when I realized that there was the possibility of a meeting, that changed what the narrative would be.

But you’d already been working on a film about surveillance before that, right? You’d been following former NSA official and whistle-blower William Binney around, as we see in the film.
I had been filming with William Binney since 2011, when [NSA whistle-blower] Tom Drake was facing these charges, and Jane Mayer did this profile of him for The New Yorker. Binney said some things that were staggering, because here you had someone who was an eyewitness in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and surveillance. And it’s been interesting to see how this has changed: When I started filming with Binney, I remember going to this whistle-blower conference in D.C., where there were like 15 people in the room. It was dark, there wasn’t a window to be found, and he’s there, explaining these major crimes. And I’m thinking, Why is this not a packed house? Why aren’t people paying attention? So Binney, Drake, and other people who had tried to raise some awareness of what the NSA was doing had gotten some attention, but obviously not at the level that Snowden did with the actual documentation. And I had also made a short film that was published in the New York Times, about Binney. I think it was through that film, plus the article that Glenn wrote about my border detention experience in 2012, that Snowden learned about the work I was doing and my interest in surveillance.

To me, Snowden seemed a bit more conflicted than we’ve been led to believe in the media. He’s obviously got the courage of his convictions, but a lot of his anger seems to be over the fact that the things he’s revealing are things he feels the country should have had the chance to debate.
It’s hard to understand which media filter you’re coming from. There is something in those days in Hong Kong, where you see the choices he’s made. He’s been totally consistent in that he feels these things should not be secret. If the government is going to do this, then the public has a right to know. But he does think that this kind of technology is extremely dangerous. It’s not just that the public should debate it; he genuinely feels that these kinds of capabilities are a threat to democracies. Relying on the goodness of policy to entrust this much power is problematic. But I agree that being able to spend time with him in that moment, you get a different take on it than what you may have gotten in bits and pieces.

Early on, you have him saying that he wants you to “paint the target directly on [his] back.” But later he says he doesn’t want to be the focus. You don’t get the sense that he’s got some carefully thought-out plan for this.
Well, it’s sort of a classic whistle-blower situation: There’s something being done here, and people should know about it. That narrative that got spun about him being a narcissist and wanting the attention is completely false. Because I actually had to convince him really hard to let me meet with him and to film him. But he’s also been consistent in that he wasn’t going to let others take the blame. He knew this would lead to a massive leak investigation, and he knows what that means for people he might work with, so he did want to come forward as the source of the leaks. I think that was always his intention. “Don’t try to protect me.” And that was odd for me, because as a journalist, my instinct is to try and protect my sources.

But your earlier films like The Oath and My Country, My Country also very much focus on individuals. All too often, “issue films” (and that’s a problematic term to begin with) wind up being all about talking heads and imparting data. But your films are about people — on the idea that if you follow the right person, then these broader issues will themselves open up in more compelling ways.
Yeah, I come out of the tradition of cinema verite, where you follow events as they unfold before your eyes, in real time. And when you do, you get all the drama and uncertainty that comes along with life. In this case, going to Hong Kong and being in the room with Snowden … this is a person at the point of absolute no return. It has inherent drama. He’s made these decisions that have brought him to this point. So why would somebody make this choice, and what are their motivations, and how can you cope with that kind of stress? All those things are allowed to become part of the film. Whereas when you sit people down and ask them to narrate and do interviews, you can lose the sense of uncertainty and risk and danger — because once things have happened, the story becomes linear rather than one of uncertainty and multiple possibilities. But yeah, I like having the protagonist drive the film to a certain extent and through their actions reveal deeper issues.

You said you had to convince Snowden to let you meet him and film him. Did you have to convince him further when it became clear that this film would be very much about him?
Once he had agreed and understood that he would become part of the story no matter what, I think he accepted it and he trusted me. Once my camera came out in Hong Kong, everyone knew that was going to happen. And nobody asked me to stop. This was a pretty extraordinary set of circumstances. I think he didn’t know day-to-day what would happen to him, and how he would get through this time. So it was kind of an all-in moment. He’d taken so many risks that the camera just became another part of it.

This will probably sound like a strange observation, but I was really taken with the white headboard in that hotel room, against which you frame Snowden in much of the film. It’s odd: Usually, filming against a white background is a real no-no. But here, it gave me this sense of overall calm. It actually enhanced the idea that here was someone whose conscience was finally clear, who was now at peace with himself.
That’s interesting. As a filmmaker, I remember when we were first talking about where to meet — I didn’t even know what country or what city we’d meet in — but I said, “Please make sure it’s not a hotel room!” [Laughs.] And when we got there, I was thinking, Oh god, all this white? Do I really have to film with all this white? Now, in retrospect, I feel like the hotel room and this claustrophobic setting were a blessing, but at the time, I was frustrated, because there isn’t a lot of contrast in a white hotel room, and there are a lot of constraints on what you can work with. He’s also wearing a white T-shirt. Looking back on it, I agree that it creates an atmosphere that I didn’t really appreciate in the moment, until I got to the editing room.

What was it like to have the news of Snowden breaking — and some of your footage of him being released — while you were working on the film? That real-time quality of having the world respond to the story as you’re trying to capture it must be interesting.
I work with really amazing collaborators in Berlin, particularly my editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy. We’ve made this film together. Her husband was one of our producers. There were people asking for interviews, for footage, but it was clear that we were going to shut all that out and focus on the film. We had this strong sense that we were going to make the film we wanted to make; we weren’t going to do something that was going to respond to the media frenzy that was unfolding. So we kept this creative space and protected it. Meanwhile, I continued to do reporting and stories about what was happening. We know that long-form filmmaking is not about breaking news — that you’re trying to tell a larger story. It’s not about headlines every day. We were pretty certain about that. Yes, this is a film about NSA and surveillance. But it’s also a film about humans — about people who take great personal risks. How do they do that, and what are the consequences?

You reveal in the opening of this film that you were put on a government watch list after your film My Country, My Country in 2006 — which surprised me, because I don’t think of that as a particularly politically explosive film.
In terms of being put on a watch list, I started being stopped in 2006, as I was releasing the film. I don’t think I necessarily got put on the list because of my film. I don’t think the Thought Police are sitting in a room thinking, “Oh, she made this movie, we better watch her.” So, I don’t think it was the content of the film. But it clearly emerged from the fact that I worked in Iraq. And of course, I don’t know why I’ve been put on a watch list — because the way the system works, you can’t find out. In fact, that’s what’s so pernicious about it, because there’s no sense of due process – you can’t just ask, “Why am I being stopped all the time?” There’s no way to question it. But in terms of doing these films, that was the moment where I was pulled into the historical narrative I was trying to document. I was making films about post-9/11 America, and then all of a sudden I’m being sucked into the growth of intelligence agencies post-9/11. But this is the first film I’ve ever done where I’m telling it from my subjective position, where I’m part of the film.

The watch-list stuff — I don’t want to suggest that there are people who sit around targeting people based on their speech. But there is a system where people are being targeted based on a lot of profiling — which we know now because of the reporting that Jeremy Scahill has done.

We also see how Glenn Greenwald was affected personally by these events, when his partner David Miranda was detained by the U.K. authorities. And we obviously know the effects it has had on Snowden. Have you seen any kind of consequences on your end?
There was definitely concern when David was detained. We had a lot of legal meetings to find out whether there was any risk of the U.K. issuing an extradition warrant for me. Because he was detained under the Terrorism Act, and I was in Europe. If they had defined what was happening as “a terrorist conspiracy” — which is what it seemed they were suggesting in some of their court filings — potentially, there could have been an extradition warrant for me. And the law that would protect me was not great. The way those laws work, it’s hard to resist an extradition. Those were real world concerns to worry about.

But once I started getting the emails in early 2013, and realizing this could be legitimate, I knew this could be really dangerous. More dangerous than anything I’ve ever done, because of how high up it would go in terms of the people it would anger. Now, I have to go under the assumption that I can’t fully trust my electronics. And this is how it works when you become involved in a story like this. They’re going to want to know who you talked to, what you did. I’m sure there’s a massive leak investigation that’s looked into all of my friends and what I’ve done over the last few years. I have to assume that that’s been happening. I’ve heard sources say that I’m quote-un-quote “lit up like a Christmas tree” inside the intelligence system, which means the people that I call or talk to are, um, being followed.

Oh. Well, that’s reassuring. [Laughs.]
And I’m calling from my phone right now, too. [Laughs.]

Living in Germany has been good, because I feel like there’s a strong core belief in the need for privacy there, and the reporting I’ve done has been received well. Der Spiegel and other institutions I’ve worked with in Germany have offered me things like legal support.

Why is that? Is it because of what Germany went through with the Stasi during the Cold War and the experience of World War II?
Yeah. Some of the historical corrections that happened in the aftermath of both the second World War and the Stasi have entrenched certain values — one of them being the importance of individual privacy. One thing that made me feel safer was the fact that the U.S. couldn’t just issue a search warrant to come and take everything — they would have to go through the German government, and that becomes then an international situation. I guess the U.S. decided it was not worth taking. But I have heard that there were discussions of doing a simultaneous raid on different journalists.

With the NSA revelations, I feel like the focus here has been on what’s being done to Americans; citizens of other countries are rarely discussed. But this film has a scene of Glenn Greenwald in Brazil explaining to the Brazilians what this kind of surveillance means for them — which is interesting, because it’s an aspect of the story we don’t hear as much about here.
From a cinematic perspective, it worked out well that Glenn and I were located in different parts of the world, which had an impact on the reporting. It broadened the issue. I think it’s problematic to talk about the dangers of this kind of surveillance without acknowledging that citizens around the world also have a right to privacy. It’s not just that we’re shocked that Americans are being spied upon. The information that’s being collected globally has angered people everywhere.

You’ve said that you went to Moscow to show Edward Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, the film. Can you say more about their reactions?
My editor Mathilde and I made a trip to Moscow, both to show the film and to film the last scene. I don’t want to speak for them, but I do think that for Lindsay, it was a very emotional experience. Because, as you can see in the film, when we first started releasing this information, the NSA came and knocked on her door, and she didn’t know what was going on. [Then] the media came after her, which was pretty brutal. When I found out that she’d gone there, I asked if we could just film something and show that they were together. I thought it was powerful that the relationship was able to sustain that.

As for Ed’s reaction, he gave some great notes: He talked about some of the technical things in the film. He basically said that we should assume that every frame of this is going to be studied by intelligence agencies, so we want to be careful about revealing IP addresses, that sort of thing. Of course, he doesn’t want to be the story, and the film is very much about him. But his response was very supportive.