Laura Poitras on Making Julian Assange Doc: "I'm Not Trying to Shape Public Opinion" (Q&A)

Laura Poitras Directors Q+A - H 2016
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

The Oscar winner tells THR of her life on a terrorist watch list and the importance of the U.S. presidential election.

Almost three years after she helped Edward Snowden unceremoniously blow the lid off the NSA’s global — and often rather illegal — spy program, winning herself an Oscar in the process, CitizenFour director Laura Poitras is back with another documentary likely to have intelligence agencies nervously resetting their computer passwords.

In Risk, which premieres at Cannes on May 19, her portrait is whistle-blowing’s original kingpin, Julian Assange, and his WikiLeaks team — "the renegades, the cypherpunks, the risk takers." She tracks them following the first earth-shattering dump of Iraq War document leaks through to the ensuing legal scramble and the divisive hacktivist’s attempts to fight deportation from within the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been living since 2012.

Speaking to THR, Poitras, 52, discusses the dangers of her job — "I think I’m still on the [terrorist] watch list" — and how she hopes her latest feature will offer the accurate portrayal of Assange that has yet to be seen in the mainstream media.

So you started making Risk before CitizenFour?

This project began in 2011, basically in the aftermath of the first initial big stories coming out, the Arab Spring, and when these investigations in the U.S. had begun and there was the targeting of [WikiLeaks] staff. But then there was a break when I was working on CitizenFour. What WikiLeaks did with the War Logs was help the world understand the repercussions of what the U.S. was doing, and I felt that really opened a more adversarial type of journalism that has been missing in the mainstream media.

Did the project take a different route after Assange entered the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012? Arguably he’s been a lot quieter since then.

I do film him inside the embassy. But he’s actually continued to publish quite a bit, so I would argue that it’s actually not the case. But yeah, it did shift.

Will Risk unveil new information about Assange or WikiLeaks?

I’ll let this film speak for itself. But yeah, in the same way that CitizenFour provided a very different understanding of an individual who is taking an enormous risk, this will be the same. I do think that mainstream media does not always represent people accurately, and I believe that this will.

In many ways, public opinion of Edward Snowden was shaped by CitizenFour, whereas attitudes toward Assange have been gradually developing over years. Is it going to be more difficult to change these attitudes?

I say this all the time with my films: I make films that are truthful, and the impact of that can shift how people perceive events. I’m not trying to shape public opinion per se. I agree with you that people have an insight and it’s harder, looking at CitizenFour, to make the argument that Snowden was motivated by anything other than what he felt was a need to inform the public about what the government was doing. But I didn’t shape the film to deliver that message. It’s simply the truth of what you see on camera. It’ll be similar with this film and how we understand Julian. He’s taken enormous risk to do the work that he does.

How is Assange keeping up in the embassy?

What’s amazing is how much he’s kept doing under these circumstances. He was key in assisting Snowden in seeking political asylum, and it’s pretty remarkable, given the number of intelligence agencies that are paying attention to his movements, that he was able to do that.

You were forced to edit CitizenFour in Berlin, but you’ve been editing Risk in New York. So things are better?

When I approached Julian, it was when the grand jury investigation was really heating up. I was being detained at the border on a U.S. government terrorist watch list, which I’ve been on since 2006. So I felt for the safety of the material that it wasn’t safe for me, in 2012, to edit it [in the U.S.]. That’s what brought me to Berlin. While I was there, that’s when Snowden contacted me. I stayed away from the U.S. for about two years, and at some point I came back after the first year of reporting on the NSA.

Are you still on the list?

Well, that’s the thing about a secret terrorist watch list, you can’t just call up and find out. I think I’m still on the list. There’s a film that I’m not going to go into details about that suggests I’m still on the list. But there’s something that they call a "silent hit" — you’re on a list, they flag when you come and go. But I’m not stopped in the same way.

What do you think of Hollywood’s track record in covering the work of whistle-blowers so far?

I’m going to pass on that question!

Have you seen the trailer for Oliver Stone’s Snowden? What hopes do you have for that film?

Again, I’m going to pass. Here’s the thing, I’m a filmmaker and I love great cinema, and if it’s great, I’m going to be the first one to say it’s great. I hope it’s a good film.

Do you think the outcome of the upcoming U.S. election could influence Assange’s future?

I think all the future is going to be heavily influenced by that!