Interview: Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras’s Edward Snowden documentary CITIZENFOUR premiered at the New York Film Festival to extraordinary applause, reflecting not only the grip its subject matter exerts on the public but also the efficacy of the filmmaking. FILM COMMENT sat down with Poitras after a public screening for a conversation that ranged from what revelations still surprise her, to the role of narrative in documentary and journalism, to how she knew she was being followed in Hong Kong. CITIZENFOUR opens theatrically this Friday.
This film is not just a guy in a hotel room, like a subpoena deposition. I really like the image you start out with, for example: a ribbon of light through the darkness. What is that exactly?
That’s a tunnel emerging into Hong Kong. At the beginning, you don’t see where it’s going, and then when we arrive in Hong Kong, you get the skyline. It’s also psychological—it feels like I’ve been in a tunnel for the past year.
As if the last movie you did, The Oath , wasn’t high-tension enough.
Definitely. I’ve been more stressed working on this film than being in Iraq during the occupation.
Just in terms of what the movie discloses, what does it reveal that has not been disclosed already?
I could answer that in a couple ways. For one thing we wanted to make a film that wasn’t about breaking news, but was about a story that would have resonance now and in five years or 10 years. But there are things that are new in it. The fact that Lindsay Mills has moved to Moscow to be with him hadn’t been disclosed before Friday night at the premiere. There are [also] some things in the final scene. Some things have been published—the watch-list documents have been published—but the role of the Ramstein air-force base is in the film. We’re working on it, and there have been other whistle-blowers who have talked about Ramstein as being key for the U.S. drone program. There’s that, and then there’s the President being the person who decides who gets killed in the drone program. That’s also been reported in other ways, but we’re doing different reporting.
Then there was a section called “Into the Archive” called Core Secrets, which is looking at some of the highest level of classification in the U.S. government. You see it when Snowden leaves the hotel room, and there’s this cut to the archive called “Core Secrets,” and you see some of what’s being initiated. That’s something we published on The Intercept on Friday, simultaneous with the film. There’s a story by me and Peter Maass which looks at these Core Secrets, which involves things like having people who work for the U.S. government deployed in the technology industry to build in backdoors, through encryption and stuff.
We intended to have [CITIZENFOUR] work as a narrative that’s not going to have a wave of headlines, and then all of a sudden be old news. So we wanted to make it a story.
That’s sometimes a challenge for documentaries. When documentaries come out, people often treat what they say as if it’s news and nobody ever said it before. I always wonder how much documentary filmmakers grapple with that.
I mean, we are definitely doing long-form journalism. It’s great if there’s something new in there, and it can get attention. But it has to go further and go deeper to have any depth.
There’s something especially striking about the nature of what CITIZENFOUR reveals, though. It’s not as though the government is spying too much—it sounds like it’s just spying all. It’s shocking, and not just the first time you hear it. It’s almost as if you need to be told certain things more than once—and need to be told it in a particularly effective narrative—in order to absorb it.
Obviously I choose to do visual storytelling—if you connect emotionally, then maybe you can shift consciousness in a certain way. There’s lots of information that we know about. We know that the U.S. has a drone program, or we know that we torture people. But if you can actually communicate those things in a way that hits people in a different way, then I think it’s fundamentally different. It’s not about news or not news—it’s about whether it has any emotional resonance. And therefore it’s about whether people care, or don’t care. The work I do tries to ground it, so it’s about communicating on the level of emotions, or empathy, as much as it is about information. There’s information that’s not revealed—that we know about—but the fact that we can see why he did it, and what he sees as the danger of it, changes how we interpret that information. If he’s willing to risk his life for this, perhaps it’s important that we pay some attention rather than brush it off.
The film’s structure—having the hour or so in the hotel room frame bookended by the outside world—is very effective. The way you set it up, it’s almost as if the room was the theory—and as soon as you leave that room you’ll be encountered with reality, with the world.
That’s really interesting. What do you mean when you say “theory”?
You have all this stuff he’s telling you. And you have no particular reason to doubt it, but it’s still just stuff he’s telling you. But then you have the news reports, and then it’s happening, and it’s real in a way that it wasn’t real before.
Yeah, I mean that does mirror, like, time stopping. And then all of a sudden psh!—something exploding beyond the hotel room.
It’s also like a cat-and-mouse game—until he comes out. What made you linger on those shots of him getting ready to leave? Picking things up, milling about. These moments feel like they last a long time, after the very dense scenes of him talking.
With everything in my relationship with Snowden, it was always: “Here’s the next step.” He didn’t say when we first started corresponding: “Oh, I will go to Hong Kong at some point, and then we’ll meet there.” It’d be like, “I need the key, let’s exchange email addresses,” and then, “You should go here and we’ll wait for the next thing.” I only knew one step ahead, and I didn’t know he was leaving the country until he’d already left and then went to Hong Kong. But I kind of thought he had the next step planned after the hotel room. When he’s packing and leaving, you realize that his planning actually stopped—right there. It was important to show that—that it’s clear he didn’t have an exit strategy in that moment, and the emotion that goes with that.
Once he’s left, it’s surprising that he ended up taking a flight that would go through Russia. Were you surprised by that?
Whatever his choice was for Hong Kong, it seemed that when the U.S. issued an extradition warrant it wasn’t safe for him to be there anymore. Then it does create a problem of what airspace, how do you get out of there, in a way that the U.S. is not going to intervene. As we saw later, when the U.S. downed the airplane of the Bolivian president, the U.S. was really after him. But I actually thought he had a strategy with regard to Hong Kong. After that—this has been widely reported—he was in transit in Moscow and was trying to get to Latin America.
Could you talk about when you decided to film?
After he, Glenn [Greenwald, journalist], and I met, we went back to his room, and I did take out my camera really quickly. Partly because I know Glenn pretty well, and I knew he was going to want to jump right in, and I didn’t want to miss that. So I took out my camera right away—which was probably a bit awkward, and he was probably also a bit nervous. Then I started filming, and on this first day, I filmed—and Glenn did—a really lengthy debrief of who he was, his biography.
The “you” story. I love that phrase.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was the “you” story. And it went on for hours. Glenn was incredibly on point to try to understand who he was, why he was making this decision, and where he came from. That was the first day, and the second day Ewen [MacAskill, defence and intelligence correspondent for The Guardian] was brought in. And he did a separate kind of vetting which we see in the film. Then they progressed, and so the first Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday were a lot of who are you, why are you doing this, and a lot of technical talk. He’s describing programs, and telling us about whatever, about XKeyscore, about Tumult, all these different things.
I like that you kept all that in.
Right, it becomes about journalism. And we’re all like, what the fuck are these things? Of course, now these things are all more in our vocabulary. Then Glenn starts publishing, and there’s a change. Because that’s when the NSA visit Snowden’s home where his girlfriend is living, and that’s when you realize there’s a bit of a race, or a clock ticking. The government clearly knows that he’s gone, and they probably know he’s the source. But they’re not ready to do a press conference or anything. And we’re publishing, and I think because Snowden had already made the decision that he wouldn’t remain anonymous, we felt it was important for him to articulate why he did what he did. So there was a bit of time pressure.
Were you filming every time you were there with him in the room?
Not every time but a lot.
How long were the sessions?
Each day was different. I’d say I filmed four hours a day, but each day was different.
You can see him changing also in that time, on his face.
It’s beautiful. First you have these strangers meeting, and a sort of awkward encounter, and then slowly getting to know each other, and then you realize the stakes for him get higher and higher. Then you realize the world outside is paying attention. From a filmmaking perspective, there was a lot of drama.
By the third or fourth day it’s clear he hasn’t been sleeping. But I suppose you might not have been sleeping that well either.
I was not sleeping, no. I was very concerned that at any moment the door would get kicked in. I felt more afraid while making this film than any other film I’ve made. Because these are really powerful forces that we were angering and we knew we were doing it.
At a certain point, you said you realized you were being followed. What were you seeing?
I wanted to stay in Hong Kong and film, and after he left the hotel room, and he went underground, I actually wanted to film where he was. I was talking to his lawyer and asked if that was possible, and we tried to make a plan where I could be taken out of the hotel room and put someplace and maybe meet up. And then, yeah, it was just clear…
What literally did you see? Was it a person walking behind you or a car?
Yeah. A car, a person. Different things.
It’s funny, I can sit here and have my little paranoid flights of imagination—and then you just confirm them.
I mean, it wasn’t surprising, that after that, people would follow me as a way to lead to him. That’s ultimately why I left. I said, it’s too risky. I was eager to keep filming if that was possible. But it just seemed risky for him, and also risky for me. And at that point, everyone else had left. Glenn had left, Ewen had left, the Guardian had left, so I was the only person there.
I remember seeing some cheesy movie in the late Nineties, Enemy of the State—
Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that a few times.
[Laughs] A few times? It’s no longer cheesy, in a way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s actually right.
Being in the thick of it, you must no longer be surprised by things.
I still do get surprised by things. For instance, I was surprised that the CIA spied on the Senate committee to investigate torture. I thought that was surprising! I was like, really, you’d think that they wouldn’t go there. Specifically because you have people in those committees who have supported the torture programs—you’d think that they wouldn’t spy on Congress. But, no, they do. So you think you’re not going to be surprised, and then things happen. And there was also some stuff in Germany where the CIA had a double agent, who was spying on the German inquiry into the NSA. And you just think, come on guys! That’s just going too far.
What about the second half of the film, is there a second film that could come out of that?
It’s too soon to know.
One aspect related to some of this is the role of business in surveillance. Is that ever something you’d like to explore?
I do think that money and capital is going to have a big impact in terms of how the surveillance debate plays out, because what we’ve seen is that there are big U.S. companies that want to have a market internationally. These revelations make foreign citizens rightfully concerned about handing their information over to the U.S. government—which then opens up a marketplace for other people to step forward that aren’t cooperating so much with U.S. internet companies and telecoms. I think that there will be economic pressures that will have hopefully a role in creating technologies that are privacy-preserving as opposed to privacy-destroying. People—both U.S. citizens, and internationally—will expect that.
Right now we’re in the era of handing over everything, the data. We haven’t really gotten the blowback from that yet, but I think there is going to be blowback. There’s going to be a generation of people who grow up and have their photographs out there—you know, their parents put their photographs up—and then there are these facial-recognition technologies… Et cetera. And there are going to be people who grow up and say: “I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to live where there’s a digital trail that collects everything I’ve said, every friend I’ve had.” I think there is both a right and a human desire for privacy. And we haven’t really seen how that’s going to play out, both in terms of what governments do, and also what companies and commercial entities do.
So your view is that at some point people will react.
I think so. I think there will be a blowback, and people will demand it. And parents will say: “I don’t want my kids, all the details about my kids, in the hands of a company or government.” That the right to privacy is a fundamental right and it’s a fundamental human need. And if you look at any repressive regime, you can see that that’s what happens: this kind of information can be used against populations. Right now, we’re in sort of a naïve state of mind thinking that it’s all innocent. I mean, Google’s email services—you can search things, you can find things, super convenient, et cetera—we all naïvely think that this is never going to be used in ways that could work against people.
It’s a challenge talking about the film because there are so many intersecting issues. But I wanted to ask about feeling part of cinema verité, as a filmmaker, and it’s funny because so much of the cinema verité people know from the Sixties and later is about famous people.
[Laughs] Not everything! You’ve got Salesman. It’s so brilliant.
I love Salesman! Or Frederick Wiseman.
Yeah, any of Wiseman.
But what I really appreciate about CITIZENFOUR is how it’s merged with journalism in a way. At the Q&A, you called yourself a documentary filmmaker, but you also then used the term “videojournalist.” Is it all together for you?
Clearly I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I do think I do visual journalism, and that’s different than print journalism. And I would also say that I’m an artist. So I think that those things cross. So, a long form of film is not just about journalism. It’s about narratives and stuff like that. I think they’re both.
You’ve done installation work in the past. What are you planning next in that regard?
The Whitney asked me to do a show in 2016, so that’s probably my next big project. But I still have documentaries and shorts that I want to do.
And how do you balance, how do you reconcile the artistic imperatives with the duty you’ve spoken of in doing journalism?
It’s hard. It’s hard, because there’s still a lot of reporting that needs to be done. And I feel an obligation that it needs to happen. It’s a challenge because the reporting takes time, and it takes time to find partnerships that don’t make mistakes that could cause harm. All those kinds of things take time to navigate. But ultimately, I think what I can contribute, or what’s maybe more unique, is what I can do with the camera instead of what I can do in print. There are plenty of great print journalists that can report on the NSA stuff. But I think that my skills are maybe better used in other ways.
We did a piece [Chokepoint] about a German company that was targeted by the GSHQ [British intelligence]. What the NSA and GSHQ are doing, which is really pernicious, is they target engineers at telecoms, personally, so they can get their passwords and get into their networks, and get their customer data. So they target this German company that provides Internet to Africa and the Middle East. They actually have names of employees and these documents. We published about it, which is a big deal, because it’s the U.K. targeting another European Union country. But then we did a video on it, which shows these engineers learning that their names are in this list.
For me, that’s what videojournalism can do, where you see the faces of the engineers being shown the data going, oh my God, I’m being targeted so that you can find out all of what my customers are doing. The print journalism is essential, and should be done, and I’ll continue to work on it, but to actually show the faces of somebody—an engineer who’s entrusted with customer data—realizing that his name is in an intelligence document, and to see that reaction, it’s a different way of communicating information. It’s powerful. It’s information that wouldn’t surprise you, so there is that idea of “yes, you know everything,” but it’s how you can know it in different ways.