9/11: 20 years later

The Persistent Outrage of Laura Poitras

A still from Laura Poitras’s 2010 documentary, The Oath. Photo: Criterion

In 2004, frustrated by the coverage she was seeing in the mainstream media, the filmmaker Laura Poitras traveled to Iraq. She hoped to see for herself how, in the wake of the 2003 invasion, American power was affecting people’s lives in the war-torn country. She wound up spending eight months there, and the result was her fascinating, heartbreaking Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary, My Country, My Country, about the efforts to stage Iraq’s first election under U.S. occupation. The expanding, troubling nature of the U.S. security state in an age of forever wars would become one of the key themes of her career.

After My Country, My Country came The Oath (2010), which told the story of two Yemeni men: Abu Jandal, a former Al Qaeda member and bodyguard to Osama bin Laden who was seemingly living freely in Sanaa; and Salim Hamdan, his brother-in-law, who was detained at Guantanamo. (The latter would eventually be freed, and his conviction overturned in 2012.) Her film work, as well as her repeated experiences being detained and questioned at airports, led to Poitras being contacted in early 2013 by a mysterious internet user who turned out to be Edward Snowden. His revelations about NSA spying would shake the world, revealing the mind-boggling extent of the U.S. surveillance apparatus. Poitras’s 2014 film about Snowden, Citizenfour, would go on to win a Best Documentary Oscar.

Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, this trilogy of films has proven her to be one of the essential artists of the post-9/11 era. To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the attacks and to “expand the focus to include the loss of life in the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Poitras has helped organize “Parallel Construction,” a two-day exhibit starting today, at St. George’s Church, in the neighborhood south of the World Trade Center (once known as Little Syria), featuring projections by artists such as Trevor Paglen, Jehane Noujaim, Nan Goldin, and Hasan Elahi. Here, we talk about her journey as a filmmaker, how documentaries stepped in when journalism failed, and her response to what’s happening today in Afghanistan.

What goes through your mind when you see what’s happening right now in Afghanistan?
I have just a profound sense of outrage, anger, and mourning. Two decades of this horrible “war on terror” that was as horribly begun as now it is trying to end it. The catastrophic disregard for human life. It’s a bit traumatizing. I’m still trying to put words around it, but this was so entirely predictable. The cost of lives, the financial cost — for what? And we’re less safe. We’ve made more enemies. We’ve gone around the world with secret prisons and black sites. Guantanamo Bay prison is still open. It just makes me all the more wish that there was some accountability, which we’ve never had. In the post-9/11 era, war crimes have been committed on a mass scale by the United States and nobody, not a single person, has ever been held accountable. And four presidents. We have Bush, the architect, and then you have Obama who basically institutionalized it all and began the drone war. I think people should be held accountable for this level of destruction. It’s really hard to begin to comprehend and process the level of tragedy.

Obviously, they should have withdrawn. The U.S. should have withdrawn in the winter of 2001, 20 years ago. Spencer Ackerman just wrote a great book [Reign of Terror] where he makes that argument — the Taliban offered to do a deal with the U.S. in late 2001 and the U.S. decided not to. The thing that’s so, so, so tragic about our handling of the attacks on 9/11 is that instead of treating it like what it was, which was a crime, and trying to identify the people who committed the crime, we decided to go to war against a religion and all Muslims. And in the process of that, we just created generations of destruction and enemies.

Your work as a feature documentarian largely coincides with the post-9/11 era. It’s not long after the U.S. invasion of Iraq that you start working on My Country, My Country. What prompted you to make these films?
Yep. There’s three films. My Country, My Country; The Oath; and Citizenfour are a trilogy, looking at U.S. response in the aftermath of 9/11. The first one is about the occupation of Iraq. The public didn’t know this, but after the terrorist attacks, behind closed doors, a number of decisions were made, including global mass surveillance and surveillance on U.S. citizens by the NSA. They create these legal memos for the legalization and justification for use of torture and plans to build on Guantanamo. And then there was the other piece of it, which was using 9/11 as a premise to invade and occupy Iraq, even though there was zero evidence that Iraq had any links to the 9/11 attacks. From my perspective as a documentary filmmaker, what I was seeing was just a march towards this catastrophe.

We also really saw the collapse of our news media during these years — the collapse of adversarial journalism coming from print or mainstream media. You had cheerleading on behalf of the news, covering the bombing of a Baghdad like it’s some kind of fireworks spectacle. As a U.S. citizen, I was feeling an increasing sense of profound urgency, a desperate need for other forms of information, and to understand the human consequences and loss of life that Iraqis were experiencing. We’d look at the front page of the news. With casualties of Americans, you get biographies, tributes, pictures, names — you know, the human cost. The lives are recognized as human beings. And then you’ll have the occupation of Iraq and people dying in mass numbers. There’s just like another suicide bombing, and it’s just body counts. There’s never a name, there’s never a person, there’s nothing. I just felt that needed to be documented, and that’s why I went to Iraq.

I didn’t know when I went that it would be a body of work that I’d spend more time on. I thought certain things would end — that the war in Afghanistan would end, that Guantanamo would end. I went there thinking I was making one film and I spent eight months in Baghdad between 2004 and 2005. When I was editing that film, that’s when I knew that I had to make the next film, which was going to be about Guantanamo Bay prison, because it remains one of the bleakest moments of American history that we opened up a prison outside of the rule of law, and have been holding people there with no charges. I was profoundly disturbed and outraged when they announced the creation of Guantanamo in 2002. And here we are. Guantanamo Bay is still open and there are still people there. This is shameful. And it’s shameful that there isn’t more outrage and press coverage about that. The thing that’s so terrifying is what lessons are we ever going to learn from this?

I recently re-watched all three of these films, as well as Risk, the film you made after Citizenfour. Obviously there’s a political valence to everything you’re showing, but as a director you really focus on character and story. This seems to be something that you navigate carefully as a filmmaker — to not foreground your own political views, and to let the story develop onscreen.
The way I’ve approached the films is that when I’m interested in making something, I try to document people who are really encountering these historical forces. I wasn’t going to make a film about the occupation of Iraq without going to Iraq, and seeing the people who are actually encountering this history and this violence. I guess I hope that through a close following of individuals who are navigating this, that the political context would emerge through that — through people and their decisions and the choices that they make, and quite frankly, the risks that they take. I mean, all of my films are about people who actually have their lives on the line one way or another.

The most powerful scene in My Country, My Country is when your primary subject Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh’s family comes home from the election and they’ve all got the ink on their fingers from having voted. The film itself shows all the incredibly problematic and compromised things around the election, and yet that moment is so touching.
I always opposed the war in Iraq, but I also want to understand it. I don’t want to just understand it from my perspective as an American citizen, but I actually want to understand it from the perspective of Iraqis and others. Maybe that leads to an openness. I was entirely cynical that elections in Iraq could ever be legitimate under an occupation. But Iraqis were willing to put their lives on the line. I have to actually honor the fact that they’re willing to take those risks and show why it was meaningful for them to take those kinds of risks. I don’t want to go in with predetermined ideas. I’d rather that as the films unfolded, they’d teach me something. There is a journey in that.

It seems to me that it’s increasingly harder for a documentarian to do what you did, which was to basically give yourself time to find the story. It seems like there’s a lot of pressure now to have the thesis spelled out beforehand. So many filmmakers nowadays basically wind up just executing an idea that they’ve already gotten the funding for. 
There are so many things that come up, like positionality, funding, whose stories to tell. I’ll be honest with you, funders are often risk-averse. It was easier to get funding after I had returned and not before I went. I had some initial funding, but not the full funding. There are different methods of working. I mean, cinéma-vérité usually requires a lot of time in the field, which is easier if you’re doing your own shooting. It becomes extremely more difficult when you have a larger crew, both in terms of expenses and quite frankly, in terms of risks. I worked without a crew partly because it allowed me more flexibility, but partly because of the risks involved. I do think that method of working is still possible. But you need to work with people who are going to trust you to tell the story. Sometimes it does take longer with these types of films, but I do think that there is something really valuable about having a record of historical moments. If you look at the hundreds of hours of footage that some of us filmed in Iraq, I consider that a historical record of the occupation, and that’s valuable.

I would say that with all of my films, I don’t just go places where there is some kind of tragedy. Rather, I’m interested in interrogating power, and particularly American power. There’s also a really important dialogue happening now in the documentary community, about who should be telling these stories anyway. There’s a real dark history of ethnographic filmmaking that is about extraction — about not recognizing people’s cultures and parachuting in. That’s very, very dangerous. So hopefully the documentary community will continue to ask these questions. And I think funders should be looking for local filmmakers, and not just relying on outsiders.

How did your own politics evolve or change as a result of working on these films? 
Being put on a terrorist watch list, which happened to me after I made a film in Iraq, definitely changed me. A little sobering confrontation with U.S. power, that I’d make a film and then be put on a terrorist watch list. When I set out to make the film in Iraq, I was certainly aware of this long history of interfering in other countries and CIA and coups and all the rest of it. But I thought, Well, clearly people are going to be held accountable. Clearly you can’t have the torture photographs be public and nobody being held accountable. I don’t have a lot of faith or belief in this country’s ability to live up to its principles at this point, given what we’ve witnessed.

It is interesting with your trilogy that you first went to Iraq to see the consequences of American power, which then led you to Guantanamo and Yemen, but with Citizenfour you effectively came home — in that Edward Snowden’s disclosures revealed that Americans themselves had become the targets of American power.
The U.S. very much became the targets of its own war machine after 9/11. I was very interested in Citizenfour with bringing it home. That the mass surveillance of Americans — this is an act against the U.S, that we were turning the powers of U.S. intelligence inward. I wanted to tell that story. For a long time I wasn’t sure how I’d ever tell that story. This was before Edward Snowden contacted me. His decision to reach out gave me a way to do what my films do, which is find an individual who’s interesting, who’s got something at stake, and let the story go from there.

Getting back to the question of journalism and its failure in the wake of 9/11, it does seem that while much of the mainstream press didn’t effectively question American actions, a lot of documentary filmmakers did.
I do think we had a collapse of the press. But I actually think there’s something to be said for how the documentary field supported work that was really critical of what the U.S. was doing. When I started working on The Oath, I just thought it was going to get me into a world of trouble. We weren’t really talking about cancel culture then, but I really felt, If I’m making a film about bin Laden’s bodyguard, this probably means that I’m going to have to move out of the country. (I actually did end up doing that later.) But I felt it was really hot button to make this — it was crucial. I mean, don’t we need to understand why we’re hated? Isn’t that one of the most important things we can ask? And not only why we’re hated, but if you can understand someone like Abu Jandal [bin Laden’s former bodyguard, and one of the main subjects of The Oath], who was who he is, and ultimately renounced bin Laden — to me, this is really important as a journalist. I really thought it wouldn’t get funded. Sundance and a lot of organizations supported it, which was risky for them. I have a profound sense of gratitude that the documentary community did support work that was going to be critical of the U.S.

The Persistent Outrage of Laura Poitras