Chattering Class

‘CITIZENFOUR’ Documentarian Laura Poitras on Recording History

Laura Poitras is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. In 2013, she received an encrypted email from an anonymous source calling himself Citizen Four. That source turned out to be NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and she would find herself documenting his leak -- and the personal and political consequences -- as they unfolded.

Laura Poitras is a journalist, visual artist, and filmmaker who creates documentaries which the MacArthur Foundation described as “elegant and illuminating” when they awarded her one of their prestigious ‘genius grants.’ In 2013, she was two years into making another film, this one about surveillance, when she received an encrypted email from an anonymous source calling himself Citizenfour. That source turned out to be NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. He reached out to Poitras, as well as journalist Glenn Greenwald, to help get the word out about what he considered dangerous practices by the US government, including the secret mass surveillance of unwitting Americans. She documented her encounters with Snowden and their global repercussions as they happened, and has now compiled that footage into the documentary film “CITIZENFOUR,” which, this week, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


Brendan Francis Newnam: What were your first impressions of Edward Snowden?

Laura Poitras: So, I was in touch with him first in the several months in email, and one of my first questions were the questions around motivation like “Who are you?” and “Why are you making these choices?” He didn’t share much about who he was, he wanted to keep that confidential until he was ready to come forward. But he did share some things about motivation, and, you know, what he told me in email was pretty consistent with what he says in Hong Kong, which is, these are programs that are happening that impact citizens of the United States and that they shouldn’t be things that are happening in secret, and that there needs to be public debate around them. That’s a pretty consistent theme of what motivated him to come forward. But, the big shock for both Glenn and myself when we arrived in Hong Kong was we had expected to meet somebody who was in a senior, you know, maybe late forties, fifties. You know, to meet somebody so young was a bit shocking.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And as someone who tracked the story in the news as it was unfolding, you know, he was portrayed a little bit as this kind of rebellious, possibly narcissistic character, who was recklessly rattling the system. But your documentary shows a more complex character. There’s a sweetness to him. He really seems like he’s trying to do the right thing. You choose these moments where he’s like worrying about his hair, he’s very concerned about the welfare of his girlfriend. I’m assuming you selected those moments to kind of round out the portrait of him.

Laura Poitras: I mean that’s the sort of extraordinary ability that I get to do as a filmmaker, you know, I try to be in places where things are actually happening in real time, and I was very aware that there was something pretty extraordinary, that he had made this decision and the decision was going to have, you know, enormous personal consequences for him. So I was trying to, you know, film small moments which I felt had more meaning, that had lots of subtext. I mean, I think it’s very hard for a kid when he starts to get the messages that his girlfriend had been visited by the NSA and, you know, you feel the magnitude in that moment, because it’s actually happening as you’re watching it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, part of the movie’s appeal is that you’re watching this person at the point of no return. His life will never be the same. And when I was watching it it reminded me, oddly enough, of the Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back” from, you know, the late sixties, where you see Dylan, already famous, but on the cusp of becoming a total icon. And there’s this certain energy that comes from watching someone right before their life changes forever.

Laura Poitras: I mean, you know, what you just said resonates in the sense of, like, I am very much, I make films in the tradition of cinéma vérité, which are when things are happening and that’s what D.A. Pennabaker did with “Don’t Look Back,” which is a movie I love. You’re not just having Dylan interviewed about his past, but you’re there when it’s happening, when you can feel the pulse of the public response to his music. I think, you know, I like to make films that are very much in that tradition where you’re in the moment when things are happening.

Brendan Francis Newnam: For most of the movie, the viewer is hanging out with Snowden for the eight days when he was effectively trapped in a Hong Kong hotel room. His nondescript hotel room, just the bed, the computer, and some other stuff, and yet, outside all hell is breaking loose because of his leak. And you know there is breaking news, press conferences. You remain a relative fly on the wall during this time. What did it feel like to be at the core of the story as it was unfolding?

Laura Poitras: I mean, honestly, you know, that sense of danger and suspense and uncertainty was very much all the things that I was feeling from the very first e-mail I got from him, to being in the hotel room, to seeing him in Moscow, and there was always a sense of danger and uncertainty. And so we tried to, in the film, bring that forward. But it was very… It wasn’t like we had to do so many cinematic tricks. It was pretty palpable. But there was also, as a filmmaker, when I walked into the hotel room, I sort of cringed a bit because I thought “Wow, how am I going to be able to film in this location that is all this white?” It wasn’t the most ideal, lush filming environment as a filmmaker. But, you know, as a documentarian you don’t get to do set dressing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, you don’t have an art director, yeah.

Laura Poitras: Yeah, no art director. But, in retrospect, it was actually, I think it was all a blessing, the sort of claustrophobic quality of the hotel room and then what felt like being in the eye of the storm, and then the sort of media response that’s happening outside, I think, all lend itself to a certain kind of drama. There’s a moment in this movie when Snowden is talking about how he doesn’t want to just dump all this data into the world because he fears it will put some people in harm’s way, and he also suggests that no one else will be able to kind of make the same decisions about what should or should not be shown, and watching that, one, doesn’t that run counter to the idea of just getting the information out there? And two, how did you come around to this idea that his judgement is better than the countless people who have sworn to preserve and protect the constitution, elected officials, people who are committed to national security?

I mean, you know, what we see in the hotel room is, you know, Snowden makes a decision. He’s got to share the material with journalists and let them make the decisions about what he believed was in the public interest. So he didn’t want to be the one who’s making those calls. But in terms of the larger question…

Brendan Francis Newnam: But he didn’t want to give it to WikiLeaks either. He chose the journalists he gave it to.

Laura Poitras: Right no, right. He wanted it to go to through journalists to decide. So for instance, if you want to ask what the public interest is, I mean… You know, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was this sort of secret interpretation of a law that allowed the government to collect all of our phone records. Now that’s going to the court system. And there have been some rulings that have called it unconstitutional, and I think some of these programs aren’t going to withstand legal scrutiny.

C4_Radius_Key_artBrendan Francis Newnam: Free speech is obviously a big topic in the news this week. Many would suggest that having the ability to track and disrupt acts of terrorism, not doing that is irresponsible. Others at the NSA and what it’s doing, or was doing, itself, threatens free speech by tracking communications. You’ve examined this issue closely, where do you draw the line?

Laura Poitras: I mean, I would say two things. One is, I, of course, defend free speech. And I think that it’s under attack. I mean, this is an attack on freedom of expression and we should not respond to these attacks with fear. We should respond to them with continuing to voice our opinions. In terms of, the NSA, I mean, what they’ve reportedly done is looking at the use of sort of bulk suspicion, the surveillance of an entire population so we have collecting of all US phone records for instance. I mean, I think that those are different things. I haven’t argued that there aren’t times in which surveillance should be used by governments. So for instance, if someone trains at a training camp in…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yemen.

Laura Poitras: Yeah. Then I think they use surveillance in that case, you know.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, so there is a place for this sort of work.

Laura Poitras: Right, I mean, of course, there are laws that govern these things, and there are rights that we have, and I think that the use of bulk collected all suspicion of surveillance is, violates fundamental principles and our constitution, and I think that those are things that we need to know what our government is doing and have debates, and have legal oversight, and those kinds of things. And I think that that’s been the focus of our reporting.

Brendan Francis Newnam: One point in the movie, Snowden says “I feel good that I’ve given something for the good of others.” Is that similar to how you feel?

Laura Poitras: I actually haven’t thought about it in those terms. I mean, of course I stand behind the work that I have done. Both in terms of the reporting and making the film and documenting things in real time, I do think, provides a historical record. And I think that’s something that is good to share with people and that also provides a historical record.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Document things in real time, if you have the subject’s permission.