A mysterious email. An invite for encrypted conversation. The pieces of director Laura Poitras’ new film fell into her lap, but she didn’t realize how significant these small messages would wind up being. In 2013, an anonymous source calling himself Citizenfour reached out to Poitras regarding the NSA—she had previously directed My Country, My Country, a powerful documentary about a doctor in Iraq. After months of correspondence, the Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald met up with the secret source in a Hong Kong hotel room. There, Citizenfour revealed himself to be Edward Snowden and told the journalists about how widespread NSA surveillance seeped into every nook and cranny of American life. One year after Snowden’s went public with his explosive secrets, he’s on the run in Russia and Poitras premiered her documentary, Citizenfour, to a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival.
I sat down with Poitras to find out more about her time hiding her film in Germany, American politics, and why she never carries a cell phone.
Laura Poitras at the PopTech Conference in 2010. Photo by Kris Krug (Creative Commons).
You’ve investigated the US government before in earlier films like My Country, My Country, a documentary that landed you on the Department of Homeland Security watch list. What piqued your interest to dig deeper into these issues?
I just found myself in historic circumstances. The first film I did in the post-9/11 era was a film about the war in Iraq. I just felt that what the mainstream media was doing about this war was frightening. The lead up to the Iraq war, everything, felt like we were going in a dangerous direction. There was literally no connection between Iraq and 9/11, so why are we going into this country and how is it by occupying them we’re going to bring democracy? It just seemed like dangerous precedence. As a filmmaker and as a US citizen, I just felt compelled to document it from a different way. There’s a way in which mainstream media all rallied behind the government after 9/11 and there weren’t many hard questions being asked. The work that I do is to try and understand things from an on-the-ground perspective. What is life like for those individuals affected by this? What does this occupation look like?
I’m drawn to these topics, and I don’t know why. I think it’s important not to just have political rhetoric around decisions that impact people’s lives. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people are dead and their country’s infrastructure is destroyed. Now, we see the repercussions of that. It’s important that we as Americans understand the impact that we’re having globally. That’s the work that I’m trying to do, but I’m also a filmmaker. I like to film people whose lives are interesting and stories that I find compelling. I don’t consider myself an activist in that sense, I consider myself an artist.
Which brings me to the question that everyone asks, how does Edward Snowden enter your picture?
Yeah, that was unusual, as I’m the one that typically contacts people. He reached out to me because he knew I was working on the topic of surveillance. He also knew that I was on a watch list and that I had kept doing the work. I wasn’t intimidated, and I think he wanted to work with journalists who weren’t going to suppress the story. He knew the story of what happed with the story of James Risen where it [his reporting on warrantless wiretapping by the NSA] wasn’t published for a year because the government convinced the NY Times not to publish it. He [Snowden] didn’t want to take all the risks he was taking for journalists who were going to make those same choices. He also tried reaching out to Glenn Greenwald, but he didn’t have encryption set up. So he contacted me, and he knew that I knew Glenn. So that’s how it started.
I believed Snowden early on, but it was pretty unbelievable. This doesn’t happen every day that a huge government secret falls into your lap. I’m not your typical person to receive that, either, because I do visual journalism and I wasn’t working for an organization. I had my reasons for doubt, but on one hand I was confident and on the other hand, I continued to be skeptical, particularly making sure I was cautious that it wasn’t some kind of government setup. There have been other cases where that has happened. There was a hacker named Sabu who the FBI had turned into an informant and was trying to turn other people in. As I was getting these emails from Snowden, I asked early on, “How do I know you’re not trying to entrap me?” He said, “Because I’m never ask you to do something.” Which was right. He said, “I’m the one with the information, I’m the one taking all of the risks.” There was nothing that he said that was at all suspicious.
How long did Citizenfour take to film?
He contacted me first in January 2013 and we finished in October. I’ve been filming since 2011, but things changed when he contacted me.
So the NSA was on your radar for much longer?
Oh yes, I started filming the Utah data centers when they were being built in 2011. It was like, what the fuck are they building here and why is it so big? I’m going to film it now before they set up all their security fences. I was filming with William Binney [featured in the first part of the film], but the story changed once Snowden contacted me.
How did you logistically prepare for that week in Hong Kong where Snowden spilled his secrets? It seemed like you had to sneak out of the hotel like he did to dodge international paparazzi and journalists.
Time started moving really fast, especially between our reporting and the government finding out and what they might do. It actually should have been planned a little better. It was a weird experience. I’ve worked in conflict zones, and this was the scariest situation I’ve ever been in. The potential of angering these really powerful people, you know it could get nasty. I was super nervous. We were also in a bubble, and I don’t think we understood the impact this [the information] was having. The world was closing in faster and faster. But we did get out.
So how did you escape?
Well, the journalists were also knocking at my door, so someone from The Guardian got me security from the hotel and we went out through a back entrance. Then I checked in under an assumed name to another hotel.
When you were filming, it seems like your camera gets closer and closer to Snowden as the week goes on, drawing attention to the toll of tension and stress on Snowden’s face. Was that a conscious decision?
It probably wasn’t that mapped out, but it was probably intuitive. At the beginning, we were all strangers so I was probably a bit more distant. Then as the days progressed, I was just responding to what was in front of the camera. The kind of filmmaking I do is to capture things in real-time. When there’s things like his girlfriend telling him the NSA has come to their house, you can tell this was really stressful. That the consequences of what he had done was going to be very hard for the people he loved. I was just responding to that on a human level.
At the beginning of the film, you mentioned that you had to hide out in Germany to avoid having your footage confiscated when reentering the US. Were there other precautions you had to take?
Oh yes, lots of encryption for emailing. Our editing system didn’t connect to the Internet. We didn’t bring our cell phones into the editing room because we knew they could be turned on as listening devices. I definitely stopped carrying a cell phone after Hong Kong. I know they track your location, so I figured if they wanted to know where I am, they’re going to have to want to spend money. I want to make it costly for them.
Do you still not have a cell phone?
Well, now I have a cell phone. It’s just not an iPhone because you can’t take the battery out. They can still turn those things on, even if it’s off.
When crafting the narrative of Citizenfour, how did you choose which scenes to keep in the movie?
We did tons of screenings and there were really a lot of hard choices we had to make. This film is almost two hours, which is pushing it for a documentary. After Hong Kong, at first we had a lot more chronicling the reporting, which felt kind of boring. We stepped away from that and tried to stay close to what had been filmed and not try to report everything. There was just so much. We were very interested in the GCHQ UK intelligence program. There’s a whole thread about the British government that emerged over time.
Do you see yourself following the topic of surveillance for more projects?
I definitely think so. I don’t know if it’ll be a long-form [film], but I’m certainly not going to just walk away. I may work in a different medium, like I’m now working with the Whitney museum for a gallery show that will most likely deal with similar themes but in different ways. It’s a new challenge, and I enjoy challenges. It’s what I tell young filmmakers, it’s always going to be a challenge and it doesn’t get easier. Just because you made a film before, doesn’t mean the next one is going to be any easier because each film has its own set of issues. You have to work your way through them.
In your interview with Jon Stewart, he mentioned a political cynicism and a sense of apathy in this country. Do believe that’s what Citizenfour is up against?
I don’t think that’s the case. I think the attitude has changed. I think it has affected young people and it’s shaken the national consciousness. I think governments will try to make that go away, but people don’t feel different. I disagree with his assessment.
Do you think there’s ever going to be a chance at reform on surveillance laws?
I hope so, and not just around surveillance, but this whole post-9/11 era. I’m still waiting for them to have hearings about why people were tortured, rendered, and sent to black sites. I think it’s a dark chapter in this country that needs to be dealt with. Surveillance is a part of it; drone strikes are a part of it. I think all these things need to be questioned.
This might be more of a documentarian question, but do you think a filmmaker can separate their views and politics from the story they’re telling?
When I go and make a film, I usually have some ideas at the beginning that I may have to change because of what I find. It’s like doing research. You don’t go into the world with all the answers; you go in to find out. Yes, you have opinions, but you also have questions. When I made the film about Iraq [My Country, My Country], I was totally against the war and against this idea of how we could have democracy while under occupation. But then I got there, and there were Iraqis willing to risk their lives to vote, and how many Americans do you know who would risk their lives to vote? You sit there and think, I have to change what I think. So I have to say, yes, I think the war in Iraq is wrong, but Iraqis wanted self-determination in the same way most people do. I’m really interested in being wrong or learning things as a surprise when I make films.
I like to make films where people come to their own conclusions. The film that I made in Iraq was shown in war colleges to military students, even though I was against the war in Iraq. I’m not interested in imprinting my worldview on the films that I make. I do choose topics that I think that are important and that I do have opinions about them. I do think the NSA is out-of-control and I think that this surveillance is a threat to democracy. I think people can watch Citizenfour and draw their own conclusions about Snowden.
Watch the trailer for Citizenfour:
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Monica Castillo is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.