Trevor Paglen shot of the NSA.

Interview: Laura Poitras on Finding Freedom through Filmmaking in “Citizenfour”

After Laura Poitras had completed principal photography on “Citizenfour,” she decamped from her native US to Berlin to complete editing of the film. It had been a while since Poitras could truly call America home, traveling the world to collect stories for her trilogy of films about the post-9/11 world, whether in Baghdad to profile a doctor yearning for a democratic Iraq without the need for US intervention in “My Country My Country” or in Yemen to learn of a cab driver who was once Osama bin Laden’s personal driver and subsequently a Guantanamo Bay detainee in “The Oath.” As a result, Poitras has been recognized with nearly every kind of accolade one can receive in her line of work – a 2006 Oscar nomination, a 2012 MacArthur Grant, a 2014 Pulitzer, to name a few. However, notoriety brought with it an increasing number of security checkpoint stops at airports, creating an air of uncertainty that was only bound to grow once she began work on a film about the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“I would have been very concerned that there would be a knock on the door to try to get access to my footage,” Poitras says now, sitting comfortably in Los Angeles only a few days removed from “Citizenfour”’s triumphant premiere at the New York Film Festival. But beyond the veil of secrecy afforded by a foreign locale as well as the benefit of Germany’s well-regarded post-production community, the filmmaker’s destination had an unexpected if subtle impact on telling the story of the NSA’s massive global surveillance operation that mushroomed in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks. “In Germany,” she says, “there’s deep historical memory of the threat of this kind of surveillance on a Democratic system. They get it. They have pretty recent history of how that can go bad.”

Although it portends a frightening future for anyone who has ever used a computer or a phone, “Citizenfour” is also an invigorating cinematic experience. Poitras allows an audience to witness an extraordinary act of rebellion in the digital age by Snowden, a tech expert who believes the promise of the Internet for self-expression has been severely compromised by even the notion of a surveillance state, let alone what he saw firsthand as a subcontractor for the NSA. Yet the filmmaker not only is able to draw on the naturally intense eight days she spends with Snowden, reporter Glenn Greenwald and his then-colleague at The Guardian, Ewen MacAskill, as the two journalists pepper Snowden with questions about his work, then shrewdly position each of his revelations as news breaks, but she converts the overwhelming evidence of government overreach (and the occasionally inscrutable nature of the man providing it) into an emotionally arresting thriller.

All at once, the film is able to speak to the broader issues raised by the NSA’s use of wiretapping and even more reckless programs such as Tempora in the UK while examining its implications more intimately as it watches a man clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight reluctantly surrender his anonymity to warn the public of the threats to their privacy. (The same could be said for Poitras, who for the first time in one of her films was faced with the prospect of inserting herself into the narrative after Snowden reached out specifically to her in January 2013.) In the midst of the craziness that’s followed “Citizenfour” since its NY debut leading up to its release this week in theaters, Poitras took the time to speak about completing her 9/11 trilogy, crafting a film that’s so suspenseful from a situation that’s so abstract and what form her films will take in the future.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong in "Citizenfour"When “The Oath” came out, you had said the third part of the trilogy would be about the 9/11 trials. Had you actually been down the road on a new film when you first heard from Edward Snowden?

I actually was looking for the third chapter of this trilogy and wanted to bring the story back home. There were a few ideas that I was playing with, trying to figure out what would lend itself to being filmed. Because my work is observational, usually there has to be some sort of drama unfolding, so I explored doing the 9/11 trials, if they actually happened, in the courtroom, which of course, they haven’t. I also was thinking about domestic surveillance because that’s the way in which the war on terror has played out in the U.S.

You made a New York Times OpDoc on William Binney, the former NSA Technical Director who appears in “Citizenfour.” Did Snowden fit naturally into what you were already thinking about?

Yeah, I had already been filming with William Binney and others around these issues of surveillance and the threat of surveillance to activism and also some new ideas of press.  Actually, I had filmed Glenn Greenwald in 2011 because I was a fan and I had read his work. I was really interested in somebody working so off-the-grid and stirring up trouble in Washington and I just felt like, “Who’s this guy? I want to go meet him.” Not just meet him when he would visit New York to see him give a talk or something, but where does he live and where does he work?  So I went down there and filmed. Oftentimes, the projects come into focus as I’m working because I do stuff that’s verite, so It’s not like the story has already happened and you then look for all the players and try to reconstruct it, but that things are actually unfolding.

Setting aside how compelling the film is because of the importance of what you’re documenting, it’s incredibly taut because of how well-made it is and the eight days you spend with Snowden, as well as the fallout would seem to adhere to a natural dramatic arc. Was it obvious from the start that this could shape up to be as thrilling as it is?  

I think it was obvious after I came back from Hong Kong that that material would form the core of the film and how we’d determine what was before and after. My editor and I decided early that we would not mix up the timeline. In other words, what we filmed on the first day would be shown first, so we would be true to the chronology of how events unfolded and to try to give this ticking clock quality to it.  It goes from an initial first awkward meeting to increased tension and in the course of a very few days, events happen that have enormous impact.

Steven Soderbergh’s credited as an executive producer and Tom Tykwer’s in the special thanks section, both of whom have made effective narrative thrillers. Did you seek their advice?

Actually, this film is very much a collaborative project between myself and the editor Mathilde Bonnefoy, who edited with Tom Twyker on a number of his films including “Run Lola Run”, which is one of my favorite films. She and I really crafted it and we did screenings [where] yeah, we sought feedback from Tom [where] he gave really great notes and the same with Soderbergh. It was great to have that feedback because I make nonfiction, but I also want these to work as stories [where] people are taken on a journey. I want that quality to the viewing experience so there was information that was being provided and things were true to the events but they also have a kind of drama to them.

You make it seem so easy since it’s often so subtle, but was it difficult to fold the exposition into an observational film such as this? For instance, there’s a moment where I wondered what the extradition laws in Hong Kong were when you can hear a BBC News report in the background of Snowden’s room, so you seemed to find natural ways in.

With most projects, that need to know and how to figure out how much that threshold is is always the key, so that it doesn’t put the brakes on the story and you’ve given enough context. The people who made the film knew there was a big story and a media frenzy — people all around talking, writing about it — and we didn’t want to make a film that was going to be reactive to those forces. So we very much wanted to make a film that was told through the perspective of the participants and stayed true to that. At some point, we brought in more archival footage that showed more of the leaks and it just didn’t make sense. It just felt like, “Okay, there’s so many stories, there’s no way we’re ever going to touch all the stories that these disclosures have led to and that we really wanted to understand.” So it’s [a film about] the motivation and the people and the risks, but also very much about the act of journalism.

Was it interesting to have a subject who was so clear on how he wanted to disseminate information? While as you’ve said before, he’s clearly not someone who’s spoken to journalists before, he’s media savvy in another way, in terms of his concern for how he’ll become the story rather than the information about the NSA.

I didn’t want to think about it in those terms. In the hotel room, there was so much uncertainty about what would become of him, it was more that in that moment, he was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I want you guys to keep reporting.” What he’s trying to do is give us the information we need. There were some conversations about what is information that’s public interest versus information that’s “legitimately classified” that he was concerned about, but other than that he was entrusting Glenn and Ewen [MacAskill, a colleague from The Guardian] and myself to report responsibly and he actually didn’t want to make those decisions. But it’s important to remember that he was not in the frame of mind of somebody who’s worrying about media perception. I think he thought any day someone could knock on the hotel room door and that he’d be taken away or something like that. He took the risks and he wants people to pay attention to the issues and not to him.

However, you do occasionally linger in the room after Glenn and Ewen are done asking questions to get a sense of what he’s going through.   

Right. Actually, most of the footage in the Hong Kong section isn’t interviews, it’s observational cinema verite-type filming of what’s going on in terms of the reporting and discussions about when [Snowden’s] identity would be made public. Again, he had consented to let me be there with my camera and he never asked me to turn it off, so I filmed what I felt was interesting and I wanted to have a range of him in a more solitary mode, then working with Glenn and Ewen.

GCHQ satellites in Bude, England. Photo by Trevor Paglen.How much was the act of surveillance a guide for you in making the film? The final shot of Snowden is particularly haunting because it’s from afar, seemingly unaware of the camera and you’ve also got shots of physical databases containing intercepted communication from around the world that are similarly unsettling.

I guess you could call it the architecture of the surveillance state that we filmed, so I filmed the Utah data center being constructed and then we collaborated with Trevor Paglen, a really extraordinary photographer, to go and shoot the facilities in Bude, England [where the GCHQ is]. We’ve actually added a new section, shot in Germany and there definitely is a vibe there [of] counter surveillance. They’re watching us, and they want to keep it secret, but these buildings exist in the physical world and we wanted it to be a part of the film. I started filming the Utah data center two years before Snowden sent me an email so it was something that I was thinking about.

I understand you couldn’t physically be there to film Glenn when his partner was detained, but you’ve said he called you as soon as it happened to have someone be there to film it. Do you think that spoke to the priority of the film for everyone involved?

It wasn’t a call, actually, but, yeah, [Greenwald] said, “I need to talk to you” and then we started chatting. We didn’t ever talk about it, but if anything happened to me or to him, I think that was the first phone call you make. Because if somebody raids my house, the first phone call I’m going to make to say, “Be careful, this is what happened,” so, I think our working relationship is such that both of us understood there were risks involved in this reporting and that we were going to make sure to keep each other informed if anything were to happen.

Are you thinking differently about how you release things as a filmmaker? This is a feature, but you’ve been making shorts and I imagine since you helped found The Intercept with Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, that could provide a new and different platform for you.

When we were in the initial stages of talking about forming Intercept, I warned everybody, “I’m in with you guys. I really want to do this, but you have to know I’ve got this big project that’s going to take a lot of my time in the first year. That’s going to be my priority and I’m not going to be able to do as much publishing.” Everyone understood that. But [there was never a question of] whether or not I shouldn’t make this as a long-form. I come from a tradition of really loving cinema. There’s nothing more that I like than going to a movie theater and seeing a good film and being transported on a journey. It’s a wonderful combination of a personal experience that you have with the movie, but doing it in a collective space. There’s something about it that I find to be really magical. I use the Internet every day, but it’s not so much a transporting experience as going to the movies, so I knew I wanted to release [“Citizenfour”] theatrically. That was really important to myself and the people I’m working with.

But I’m also really excited about working more in short-form that may be more for release on the Internet. The exciting thing about that is to work more quickly. There is something where it’s great to be able to engage more directly, more quickly around a topic. I wanted to do more short form stuff now that this is done. A movie takes time, it’s like writing a book, it’s not something you can do in a couple months to do it well.

Edward Snowden in "Citizenfour"The fact the film says upfront it’s the third film in a trilogy implies that your work here may complete, but it’s hard to imagine you can let something like this go after raising so many questions.

The reporting is definitely ongoing and I can’t imagine I’m just going to turn away from these issues because I still think that there are ways in which we have just drifted onto a bad course. in the post-9/11 era and I think I’ll continue to have that feeling. But I might work in different form, maybe more shorts, and I’m going to be doing a piece for a museum that will allow me a little bit more flexibility in terms of how our information can be presented that I’m excited about, but it’s really too soon to tell.

You’ve said there was enough material for [“Citizenfour”] to fill two films. Was there anything you were disappointed to lose in making the final cut?

I actually don’t think it’s lost yet. But you’re right, I’ve said that and I think the other material I was trying to keep working with and it will find its way into another film.

There has been plenty of excitement surrounding the film since few knew of its existence prior to its premiere at the New York Film Festival, and it goes to theaters this week. How did the shotgun release come about?

I’m guilty for that one. [laughs] I already felt strongly about a few things. I didn’t want there to be a long lag time between when we premiered it to when we released it, which meant that I didn’t want to try to find a distributor at a festival essentially. That meant that we had to have everything lined up, but I really wanted to keep it under the radar – both so that we wouldn’t have people speculating on timing or anything [else] and that we could just shut the doors and do what we needed to do, which was be creative and when we were ready, that’s when it hits. It was a rare circumstance where there’s already a lot of public awareness about the issues, so we didn’t need to build that. I also wanted to make sure that the information stayed really, really tight. To their credit, how everybody — [our distributor] Radius, Participant, the New York Film Festival, HBO and my partners in Germany — managed to not let the fact of the film leak, I was impressed.

“Citizenfour” opens on October 24th in Los Angeles at the Landmark, New York at the IFC Center, San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas and in Washington DC at the E Street Cinema. It will expand on October 31st. A full list of screenings and dates are here. It will air on HBO on February 23rd. “My Country My Country” and “The Oath” are also now available to watch on Fandor.

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