Laura Poitras on Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour,' Possibility the Fugitive Will Return to U.S.

Laura Poitras - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Laura Poitras - H 2014

Laura Poitras doesn't like being the center of attention. But even though the inconspicuous, soft-spoken, camera-shy 52-year-old journalist and filmmaker does her work from behind a computer and a camera, she has become just that.

Poitras' profile has skyrocketed over the past decade. In 2007, she landed an Oscar nomination for the first feature-length film that she ever solely directed, the documentary My Country, My Country, a film that raised serious questions about America's involvement in Iraq. Four years after that film's release, she directed another doc, The Oath, which focused a critical eye on the Guantanamo Bay detention center. And in 2013, she and Glenn Greenwald, then a journalist for The Guardian, traveled to to Hong Kong to meet with an NSA contractor named Edward Snowden, who had reached out to them seeking assistance in bringing stolen documents about secret surveillance programs to the attention of the entire world. In providing that service, they became two of the most controversial Americans in the world, labeled by some as "co-conspirators," but applauded as "heroes." For of their work, The Guardian and The Washington Post were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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Over the past week, though, the spotlight on Poitras has grown bigger and brighter than ever before. Last Friday, Citizenfour, Poitras' latest, closely guarded documentary — which she calls the final installment of her trilogy about American power after 9/11 — had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, where it was met with lengthy standing ovations and rave reviews. Comprised mostly of never-before-seen footage of Snowden that she shot during their time together in Hong Kong, it also includes several major revelations about his life since he went on the run and the state of the fight for greater government transparency. Agree with Snowden or not, Citizenfour is a unique and major accomplishment, probably the film to beat in the best documentary feature Oscar race — and based on the level of enthusiasm that it has generated and discussion that it surely will generate in the coming weeks and months, maybe even a contender for best picture and best director noms, as well.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Poitras — following a "nonstop" weekend at the fest — inside the midtown-Manhattan offices of HBO. (The network will air Citizenfour on television after RADiUS-TWC completes a theatrical run, which will start on Oct. 24.) She was clearly thrilled with the response to her film, which she only completed shortly before it screened. "What I really loved to see was how the audience responded to Snowden, and Snowden kind of owns the screen," she told me. "Even when Snowden is doing all of his tech talk, people are just like — they're with him. That was powerful to see."

Over the course of the next half-hour, we talked about her development as a filmmaker; how America's response to 9/11 led to her trilogy of doc projects; the evolution of her relationship with Snowden; whether or not she has behaved in paranoid ways; how she feels about WikiLeaks; whether or not she fears prosecution for her role in the Snowden situation; what she thinks will become of Snowden; whether or not, in light of all that she knows and has experienced, she feels proud to be an American; and much more.

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If you met somebody who you'd never met before and who had never heard of you, how would you describe what you do? You wear so many different hats.

I make documentary films about issues that are often political issues, but I tell them through human stories. And the approach that I use is filming things as they happen in real time, so actual real drama happening, where I, as a filmmaker, don't know where the story's going, but I'm with people that I'm interested in and I'm along for the journey. And then, through following events over time, over conflict, and spending time with people, you come to understand both something about human nature and the choices people make, and also about the issues that I'm interested in, that connect them, too. That's what I've done in all my films — you know, the political and the personal kind of thing — and they're always close to protagonists. The people that I follow, it's through them that you understand the world in a way, and in the same way as a lot of narrative, you know? But narrative pulls from real life, so it's not like I'm pulling from narrative. I feel like narrative is in fact based on what human drama is. So anyway, it's action-based; it's not interview-based type of filmmaking. And I'm interested in creating primary documents, you know, sort of like filming historical moments. So I made a film about the Iraq War, which is both a story of a man — a doctor — and a family under the occupation, but it's also a record of the occupation that is historical record. It's not just pundits debating what's right or wrong about the Iraq War, but it's like, "Okay, these are the human consequences of the war, and let's understand it from there." I'm interested in having a record — like, these are historical moments — and being able to present those to the audience. And so, with Citizenfour, it's ...

The ultimate.

(Laughs.) Yeah, you know, this journalist moment that, in general, normally is not supposed to be filmed. You're not supposed to be there. You're not supposed to have an insight into it. And in this extraordinary set of circumstances, and with the willingness of Snowden to come forward, I was able to film it. And so you kind of get an inside look at journalism and its impact.

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Can you pinpoint when you first got into films as just a viewer? And then, was there also a moment when you said, "Wait a minute, I'm actually a filmmaker myself?"

Yeah, actually. So, in terms of as a viewer, I grew up in movie theaters. Like, I love, love, love going to movies. It was my favorite thing to do. I would go alone. I would get on a bus and go into Boston and watch [Martin] Scorsese and watch D.A. Pennebaker [films] — before I had a driver's license, I was doing that. I love cinema and I love that kind of both private experience, but that it's happened in a collective, you know? Everybody's having their own relationship to the screen, but you're doing it in a room together. I don't know. There's something that's I think really magical about cinema. And so I've always really loved that experience. But I never really thought I would be a filmmaker because it was something I always thought was you need a big crew of people to do. I'm much more of a shyer, solitary person. And then I went to art school and I started doing filmmaking, and I did it in much more of an abstract way where I was shooting with a Bolex and sort of more like in the Stan Brakhage experimental tradition, or Ernie Gehr, where it's kind of not unlike painting, but you're doing it with the camera. And so I had a Bolex and I shot 16 mm silent film, and I did more abstract type essay films, and I loved that. And then I realized like, "Oh, wow, you don't need a crew of 20 people to make cinema." I was able to make images that I liked, or whatever, but it was much more aesthetic. And then I really got hooked on human dramas, documentary and particularly, in the tradition of direct cinema, cinema verite while I was working on a film called Flag Wars, which I did with a colleague, Linda Bryant. She was the director and I was the co-director and we produced it together. It was like having a camera in your hands and spending time with people who are facing real transformative moments in their life. In this case, we were looking at gentrification and a neighborhood that was going through change, and we followed it from both sides of the perspective — the long-term residents and the people moving in — and I just totally fell in love with that type of cinema, where you spend time with people and through them you understand bigger issues. There's just something that resonates in a different way than if you just say, "Let's talk about gentrification," you know? Talking heads. But here it was, you know, a black neighborhood that was struggling to keep its community and then it was being gentrified by gay white men. And then they were kind of confronting homophobia. It's just like, all these kinds of layers of issues, but the issues are all embodied in people. So that kind of taught me about storytelling and about this idea of having an interest and then looking for ways in which to tell a story in real time.

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What was it that happened that sort of set you on the course to do your trilogy on America after 9/11? Was there a catalytic event that you would pinpoint?

I was living in New York on 9/11 and was here in those first weeks, and I experienced a city that was — my overwhelming sense of the city at that time was one of compassion. Like, there was just an outpouring of compassion from everywhere. And then to sort of like watch as we prepared for war and just see how the government responded as opposed to how people responded to 9/11. But what was the real sort of trigger was the buildup to the Iraq War. I felt that this idea of the U.S. setting a precedent of unilateral, preemptive war — that we were going to go to war against a country because we think they might cause harm, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 — it just felt completely doomed from the start. Even if you bought the intelligence, which has now been totally debunked — it was fabricated — but even if you bought it, how do we go to war against a country because we think that they might try to harm us? And so just sort of watching the U.S. response to 9/11 with things like the buildup to the Iraq War and also the opening of Guantanamo, when did we wake up and become a country that opens a prison where we send people with no charges? Like, how does that sort of reconcile itself with any notion of rule of law? These felt like things that were drifting in a direction that was very frightening. So what motivated the first film, which was the film in Iraq [My Country, My Country], was a feeling of despair that the country was moving in a direction that I felt would just have negative consequences, you know, and was not an appropriate response to the attacks of 9/11. So I decided, "Okay, I'm going to go to Iraq and try and understand the war from a on-the-ground perspective, to sort of not just engage it from a political pundit point of view, but like, "Okay, what is this? What are the human consequences of this war and how can we understand it?" I felt like I had certain skills where I could do that and go there. [American journalist] George Packer just wrote a piece, and I'd read a piece of his about the Iraq War where he described a soldier who in the day was teaching Iraqis like, Robert's Rules of Order and how to hold meetings, and then at night was like, busting down doors and putting people in prison. There was something so tragically wrong about the Iraq War. So anyway, I went to Iraq to make a film and, at that point, I just felt compelled as a journalist, as a documentary filmmaker, to try to show this war from a different perspective that's not just the mainstream media celebration of this war, which I totally saw. So I went and ended up spending like, eight months there. I didn't know it was going to be [part of] a larger body of work; I thought I would do that and move on to another project. When I was thinking about going to Iraq, I was also thinking that I'd really like to make a film — that it was important to make a film — about Guantanamo. But then I'd said I was going to make a choice and I decided to go to Iraq, assuming that Guantanamo would, of course, be shut down. I'm like, "Of course, you can't keep a prison in another country open indefinitely, right? It's inconceivable." It was inconceivable. And this was 2004, this is two years into Guantanamo Bay. So as I was editing My Country, My Country, Guantanamo was still open, and I said, "Okay, well that's going to be the next film that I do." And then that's when I started thinking about this notion of a trilogy.

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Did you always know the third part you wanted to deal with surveillance?

Yeah. I sort of threw out different ideas and different things, but it always felt like I wanted to return home. People kept thinking, "Oh, you make films about the Middle East." And I was like, "No, I don't. Actually, I make films about American power and American power in response to post-9/11. They're set in Iraq, but they're really about America." So I did a film about Guantanamo [The Oath]. But yeah, surveillance was a main theme because if you look at the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a few things happened that sort of set the course that we now find ourselves on, and one of them was domestic surveillance. The NSA took its eyes that were looking out and turned them inward. In the immediate aftermath of September 2001 is when they started using the technologies to monitor Americans. It was one of the first things — you know, there was planning for the invasion of Afghanistan and domestic spying and memos to allow them to torture and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, it was always a theme that I was interested in but not quite sure how to tackle it. It's a tough one, you know? And I certainly remember when [journalist] James Risen's story came out in The New York Times and I was like, "Okay, well, how do you get at surveillance?" And then my sort of personal connection to it is that in 2006, after I made the film in Iraq, I was put on a watch list — a secret watch list — and started being detained every time I entered the United States.

This was before you had any association with Snowden, so why do you think you were being detained? What were you suspected of?

I have no idea. I mean, that's what's so pernicious about having a secret watch list: not only can you not challenge why you're on the list, the government won't even acknowledge that there is a list. Thanks to the courage of whistleblowers, we know that there is a watch list, we have a documentary that published it. But when I first started getting stopped? "We will not confirm or deny that we have a watch list." And I'm like, "Well, you're stopping me every time I travel, so I'm obviously on some list." Bu, I don't know, I mean, people have speculated, but I actually really resist wanting to speculate because I've done nothing to deserve being put on a watch list, and I think the obligation is on the government to tell me why I'm on a watch list — and I hope they do someday.

When you first heard from Snowden online, did any part of you think, in light of the fact that you'd been dealing with this other stuff, that perhaps you were being set up?

Totally. Totally. Like, that was totally on my radar. I first started getting detained at borders in 2006 and it went on dozens of times. By the time Snowden emailed, I had already learned a bunch of tools like encryption tools, so I knew how to communicate with him with encryption because I had to, because the government was taking my stuff at the border, so I had to figure out how to protect it. And yeah, one of my first things was like, "Okay, who the fuck are you? Who the fuck are you? Are you trying to entrap me? How am I supposed to trust you?" And I asked him very directly, "How do I know you're not trying to entrap me?" And his response was, "Well, you'll know that because I'm never going to ask anything of you; I'm just going to give you information."

At what point when you were fully convinced that he was the real deal?

I mean, really early on. I thought by the third email that it was legit, and I thought if it was legit it was super dangerous and a super big deal. But I wasn't going to let my guard down. I didn't want to be like, "Oh, fuck, I fell for that," you know? And so I was constantly very vigilant about how I engaged — just assuming like, "Okay, this could all be public" — and how to  stay within the lane of a journalist. You have some really scary things happening in the government, where they have used descriptions like "co-conspirator" to refer to [Fox News reporter] James Rosen and other leak investigations. So even if I ask for nothing, I'm sure that there are people in the Justice Department who would like to find a way to see if they could bring charges against me.

Do you have any fear or suspicion that that could still happen or do you think the heat's a little off now?

I think the heat's a little off now. In the immediate weeks and months after Hong Kong, I think the heat was pretty hot — you know, this is when they were downing presidential planes [specifically, that of Bolivian president Evo Morales] and detaining [Greenwald's life partner] David Miranda. That was a good time not to be in the United States. And I'm sure that there were people who sat around a table and said, "Okay, what are our options here? How can we stop this?" And I'm sure that they pondered lots of options, including subpoena, including indictment. But I think that the public response to the disclosures made that really hard to do. Despite the fact that I'm very critical of US policy in terms of post-9/11, I still do think that, as a journalist, I'm able to report. I did have to move to Berlin to do it, so definitely I've experienced intimidation — it's made the work harder — but I don't think we've reached a point where reporting is impossible. I think that there are certain challenges. I think that they're targeting us. I think they're targeting whistleblowers. But I don't think that Obama wants to be known to indict journalists.

To prepare for this conversation, I read as much as I could about you, including the New York Times Magazine piece from August 2013 and this month's New Yorker piece. Those covered some of the tactics that you had used to avert having your stuff read when you had come through airports, which was pretty complex stuff. And some people read about you doing that, pre-Snowden, and asked if that was truly necessary or perhaps a little paranoid? In other words, if you had nothing to hide from these guys, as wrong as it may have been that they were detaining you, why did you go through all of that effort?

I mean, but I'm a journalist. I have obligations of source protection. It's like if you're a lawyer and you have attorney-client privilege and they take your stuff at the border, you've violated your oath, your duty; it's the same thing as a journalist. So I think if you're working with sensitive source material, it's actually reckless not to take precautions because of the dangers of digital surveillance. And so I don't actually think it's paranoid. I mean, I actually think the fact that I've been detained at the border over 40 times, that I've had agents say to me, "If you don't answer our questions we'll find our answers on your electronics"— I don't think I'm being paranoid. I think they basically told me what they're going to do and that I'm responding in a pretty commonsense way, which is, "Okay, if you're going to try, well then, I'm going to protect my electronics and not carry them across the border." I mean, it's based on experience and it's based on the fact that my profession — that your profession — is one where we protect sources. That's the foundation of a free press, that there's a First Amendment and there's a right to a free press.

With Citizenfour, you made some aesthetic decisions that are really interesting. For one, let's talk about the decision not to put yourself in the film, even though you're obviously integrally involved with the story.

But I am in the film.

I'm sorry, I mean visually.

Okay, okay.

So I just wondered if you could talk in general about how you decided to feature yourself in the film.

Yeah. I mean, the first text card says, "I was put on a watch list," so it's definitely told from a subjective point of view; that was necessary because I am a participant in what's happening. But in terms of being in front of the camera, I mean, aesthetically, we decided that it was going to be a first-person, that I would, in a sense, be the narrator, as if you were reading a novel and there was a narrator that was introducing you to different people and was also a participant. We did do some shoots where I was reporting and I was in front of the camera, but there was a weird shift from first-person to third-person that was illogical; it sort of broke what we were trying to do as a narrative. It just kind of collapsed into personal essay, which is not the kind of filmmaking I'm that interested in. And so I think it was trying to find a balance where I could have a film that was built on scenes and scenes that built on each other and sort of building a dramatic arc. Like, when I go to shoot at The Guardian, I want to film a scene where it's like, "Okay, there's tension here." I want to get shots. I want to get cutaways and I want to build a scene. And if I interject myself all the time, then I'm taking the viewer out of that zone and putting them into a much more, I think, self-conscious sort of point of view. It was trying to find that balance. So I do think I'm in it, but I also didn't want it to become a personal essay. And then, also, you know, I'm oftentimes alone in the field — usually — like I was at The Guardian. I was in Hong Kong alone. I'm doing sound and I'm doing picture. And now I'm like, supposed to enter the scene? So there were all those kinds of things. And in a way, it's not my natural inclination. I mean, there are people like that — I love Michael Moore's work and he's just awesome at it. But it's different.

Where is the line between an acceptable degree of government secrecy versus infringing on liberty? Presumably, one of Snowden's main objectives in making people aware of these programs through you and Greenwald was that they will go away. But if they go away, and then there is another 9/11 type of event that it turns out could have been prevented by one of these programs, what do we say at that point?

I think his critique has been against sort of dragnet suspicion, this mass, bulk surveillance — planetary surveillance — of collecting everything. And the argument that he makes, and that I agree with, is two things. One is it's a violation of rights — not just a violation of Americans' rights, but others' internationally. But also that they're drowning in data — in other words, it's not making the intelligence any better because they're drowning in so much data. So I think I haven't made the argument that there's no legitimate way in which surveillance should be used; it's that the surveillance of entire populations is a violation and it can be used as a form of control, particularly when you target journalists. If they collect all of our phone records and then they have a leak, they can just go back in the phone records and find out, "Who did the journalists speak to in the last weeks and months?" And so I think the critique has been against the scale and the scope, which is this mentality of, "Collect it all." You know, there's a document that I published in The New York Times, basically a four-year plan, and I just describe it. We're living in the golden age of surveillance. The Internet, it opens up everything. We have phones that tell us where people are. We can build graphs of who everyone knows. I mean, it's dangerous. And so that's what I think the reporting we've been trying to do is — to expose — not how this is used in a law enforcement way or for foreign intelligence.

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Ideologically, is there any daylight between your position on the issue of surveillance and that of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks? My sense is that they feel that all information should be free, but you are more supportive of discerning journalists reviewing and curating it before it is released, rather than just dumping everything.

I would say, in terms of WikiLeaks, I have respect for the work that they've done. I think that they've created pressure on mainstream media to be more aggressive in their reporting, and I think the way that they handled the Manning leaks, by working with multiple partners — so you can't have a situation where The New York Times basically just sits on a story because the government tells them to because they know it's going to be published in three other countries — sort of raises the bar for everyone. I think that's really good for journalism. I think it shouldn't be ignored that WikiLeaks also partnered with other outlets, and that with what people describe as the leak that happened, where things were un-redacted, it was actually somebody else who leaked it — it was a journalist who published a password to a file that then got unlocked and that contained names. That was something that was the work of a journalist who didn't understand the implications of publishing a password, so that should fall on the journalist and not on WikiLeaks, you know? I do think that there are things that should be redacted in these documents, particularly names, you know? I think that if there are people who are in positions of responsibility and accountability in intelligence agencies, those names should be public, but not every name of everyone who works for the NSA. There are a lot of names in the documents that we always redact. I would like to increase the reporting and have more documents out there. I think that it's a legitimate criticism to say, "Why is it taking so long?" And the answer is, "Well, you know, the stakes are high. If we mess up, then we create a backlash against the reporting. And also one of the sort of primary pieces of advice that I was given as I was looking at the legal risks of working on this story was, "Don't become a source for the documents. Report on the documents and then you're within a journalistic zone. But if you start becoming a source for the documents, then you have more legal exposure." And so that's also been one of the reasons why Glenn and I have partnered with lots of people — but it creates challenges for scaling.

Based on your experience and based on your gut, what do you think is going to happen with Snowden? How is this going to play out? And today, in light of everything that's gone on, good and bad, would you say that you're proud to be an American?

[laughs] The last question — I just feel like it feeds into sort of a simplistic kind of narrative, which is not the kind of work I'm interested in doing, so I'm just going to leave that one. And in terms of Snowden, I think it's unknown. I mean, he applied for asylum in many countries and I think he has popular support in many places, including Germany, but you also have governments that don't want to anger the United States. So I think that depending on how those politics shape up will determine where he'll be in the future.

But could you see a world in which he's back in America one day as a free person?

Yeah — but not in the near future.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg