Laura Poitras's past films, "My Country, My Country" and "The Oath," both explored post-9/11 America and the effects on the rest of the world, but her newest film, "Citizenfour," examines what our country can do to one of its own.
"Citizenfour" tells the story of famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Poitras was in Hong Kong with Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald when Snowden first leaked his documents in 2013.
So when Poitras stopped by The Frame, we asked her about filming a story that was happening in real time, protecting her data from the U.S. government, and the state of whistleblowers in contemporary society.
A lot of documentary filmmaking is often told from the point of some perspective — it might be time, it might be distance — in which you're looking back at events. The events in this film are unfolding in front of your eyes, in real time. What was that like as a filmmaker, to be witnessing the narrative tell itself as you were there?
It was definitely the most extraordinary filming experience I've ever been in. Being in this hotel room in Hong Kong and having these meetings with a source who actually had documentation of the most secretive agency in the world, and one of the most powerful agencies in the world. Being there with [journalists] Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, with them receiving this information and Snowden trying to explain the technicalities...we were all worried that someone was going to break the door down and try to stop us from working. So it was pretty high-stakes, and I was pretty nervous. I've worked in conflict zones, and this definitely felt more scary.
What were you nervous about?
I was nervous that the government would come in and shut us down. Certainly I was nervous for Snowden and his circumstance: he had taken enormous risks and we know that the government has come after journalists in unprecedented ways in recent years.
I've worked with James Risen with the New York Times, and the government is trying to get him to talk about a source. The government could have tried to charge me and Glenn. They talked about James Rosen being a conspirator in the Stephen Kim case, so that's the government's position right now, to really come down on sources and journalists.
Have you had any contact with the U.S. government or the NSA regarding your footage? Have they tried to reach you and get it?
[laughs] Those are interesting questions. Before I went to Hong Kong I had a lot of meetings with lawyers. Some said it was risky to go and The Washington Post advised me not to, but then I had lawyers who said, "Obviously you're acting as a journalist." Though one lawyer said, "If you bring a camera it makes it more risky" — because of the threat of subpoenaing my material.
So I edited everything in Berlin and we took extreme measures to keep the footage secure and encrypted, with the concern that either the material would be subpoenaed, or worse, that they could try to raid our editing room and take everything. We protected it all, even all the outtakes, with encryption and strong pass phrases. In terms of whether or not I've been contacted, I haven't been, but—
As far as you know, you haven't been contacted.
Well, I know they're paying attention to me, but they're not sending me letters or calling me on the phone. Or calling my lawyer.
How does it change the story you're telling when you find yourself a subject of the film itself?
It was obvious that the viewer needed to know that I was a participant and [that] Snowden reached out to me. I like to make films that draw the audience in and take them on a journey, and I didn't want this to be all about me, so it was about trying to figure out the balance between how much of it would be subjective and how much of it would be what I love to do, which is this cinema verite, where you see things unfold in real time. When I'm working that way, I do my own camerawork.
So in the hotel room, I didn't have a crew, there wasn't anyone doing sound. I wasn't hiding behind the camera; I was actually operating it. I felt that what was unfolding was a rare moment of journalism and I was trying to document it. Usually in these situations, the source won't reveal their identity, so you can't see it. You read about it, and then maybe years or decades later the source will come forward, like Deep Throat. But in this case I could film it, so I was interested in creating a record of what happened.
While you were making this film, or even now, did you feel that the government was tapping your phones or looking into your email?
What do you think?
[pause] I think the odds are good. But they're probably tapping a lot of people's.
Yeah, I think so. I've been working in Berlin, and I have some sources in the German Intelligence Agency that say that I'm lit up like a Christmas tree in terms of my communication.
Use cash, don't have a mobile phone, and send letters, not e-mails.
You know, that's the reality. After I got back from Hong Kong I put my cell phone in a drawer and didn't use it for a year while I was editing. I figured that if they wanted to know where I was, they'd have to spend some money to find out. I wasn't going to just broadcast my location. And that's kind of a scary situation for a journalist. You have an obligation to protect sources, and this digital technology makes that very difficult.
What kind of steps did you have to go through to protect your footage in post-production?
After being in Hong Kong, I got on a flight to Berlin, and we put all the footage on encrypted drives. The editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, and I began editing, and for a while we were the only ones who had passwords for the material. Then we shared it with a very small group of people that we trusted.
And then when the film got further along we worked with many funders and distributors who needed to see the film. We made them come to Berlin and we took away their cell phones, which they didn't like. But people were great. That was actually a surprise, just how supportive people were to help us make this project, and there were risks involved. We didn't know what the government was going to do.