Laura Poitras: "I knew this was going to piss off the most powerful people in the world"

The Pulitzer-winning filmmaker talks about shooting those history-shaping Snowden-Greenwald meetings in Hong Kong

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 23, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Laura Poitras      (AP/Charles Sykes)
Laura Poitras (AP/Charles Sykes)

Unlike most other documentaries, Laura Poitras’ new film “Citizenfour” both reports on a major news event and is, in itself, a news event. As I wrote after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival a couple of weeks back, “Citizenfour” is a real-life spy story that should be seen by everyone concerned with the scope of American electronic surveillance and the state of privacy and freedom in the electronic age. Since that interest group encompasses everyone on the planet, the film should be a huge hit, right?

Quite possibly not. Too many people already have their minds made up about the subject matter of “Citizenfour,” after the mainstream media’s assault on the perceived character and motivations of Edward Snowden. Poitras’ title refers to the pseudonym used by Snowden, then a contract consultant with the National Security Agency, when he first contacted her by email a bit less than two years ago. Since then, of course, Snowden has become a famous and/or notorious and extremely controversial figure, a hero to some and a traitor to others. Poitras convinced Snowden to let her film him beginning on the day when she and journalist Glenn Greenwald first met him in a Hong Kong hotel. So what you see in “Citizenfour,” for the first time, is not the clichés or assumptions or tabloid-style reporting on who Snowden was and why he chose to reveal an enormous trove of classified documents revealing much of the NSA’s worldwide spy campaign, but the man himself.

You are perfectly free to agree or disagree with Snowden’s reasoning and his decisions, but any argument that he was a foreign agent or a naïve hothead or an arrogant narcissist pretty much falls apart. We are confronted with a calm and reflective adult who has thought deeply about his life-changing and history-shaping decision, and is prepared to face the consequences. As you’ll see in “Citizenfour,” Snowden did not appear confident that he would escape prosecution and imprisonment, and pretty much expected those things. The admittedly ironic fact that he is now a gilded-cage émigré in Russia – America’s longtime global rival, and a vastly less free and open society – is surely not lost on Snowden. But that came about by accident, as the denouement of a chapter of the Snowden story we don’t really know yet: His involvement with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, who would seem to have bungled his escape plan, albeit with noble intentions.

While the guts and heart of “Citizenfour” lie in those extraordinary Hong Kong hotel scenes, the film also takes us to legal conferences in Berlin, the offices of the Guardian in London (where at one point editors are forced to destroy an SD card bearing Snowden’s leaked data), Greenwald’s home in Rio de Janeiro. It even offers us a brief glimpse of the new home Snowden now shares with Lindsay Mills, his longtime girlfriend, who has worked her way around to forgiving him for his unexplained and sudden disappearance last year. But most of the issues surrounding the back-story, the creation and the narrative choices of “Citizenfour” came up in a long conversation I recently had with Laura Poitras, already a Pulitzer winner for her work with Greenwald and an Oscar nominee for her previous film “My Country, My Country.” That was the first entry in her “9/11 trilogy,” which continued with “The Oath” and concludes, however inconclusively, with the extraordinary “Citizenfour,” sure to be a major Oscar contender this year. I met Poitras, who lives in Berlin, at the New York offices of HBO (her principal funder), a few days after the explosive Lincoln Center premiere of “Citizenfour.”

In this film you are both an observer and a participant, which is not unique in documentaries but is especially obvious here. This film is now part of the historical record of an exceptionally important episode. Were there moments where you have to have a double consciousness – the filmmaker and the participant? Maybe that’s what making a film is like anyway, but there you are in the room with Glenn Greenwald and Ed Snowden, during this remarkable conversation. Are you trying to listen to the substance of what they’re saying while also thinking, this is a great shot, this is a killer moment?

There were definitely moments where I felt like I went in and out of different roles, sort of more the journalism role vs. the filmmaker role. But when I was in Hong Kong, I was like I was definitely there to document. Just to try to capture what was happening. And I definitely was feeling a sense of -- there was enormous tension and pressure, because I'd had this very lengthy correspondence [with Snowden] and I was pretty aware that this was going to piss off the most powerful people in the world. We could all be in big trouble, this could end really unpleasantly.

I was pretty aware of that before I got on the plane to Hong Kong. And so while I was there, it was really like being in a state of free fall, and hoping that whatever skills that I've developed as a filmmaker will sort of kick in. But there were certain times where it was like -- the day that [Snowden] was packing to leave the hotel, it was, like, hard for me to focus the camera. There were real-world stakes happening, and trying to just remain calm and focused was challenging. And then it was also surreal, because we were seeing, as we were reporting, what we were reporting being looped back in [through news coverage]. The whole situation was unlike any other I've ever been in.

In that scene you’re talking about, where Snowden is packing to leave the hotel for an unknown destination, he seems nervous for the first time. Because he’s ordinarily so calm. And I have to say that the nervousness you mention comes through the filmmaking, maybe subconsciously. The anxiety of those moments is almost a physical sensation.

Yeah, I felt it. And I think we didn't quite understand what was going on. We were sort of insulated in this little room. We were doing news and we realized it was having an impact, but we didn't really understand the magnitude until we left, and then it was like: Oh. I released the video [in which Snowden revealed his identity] and then went to sleep and then woke up the next day and was like: Oh shit, OK.

What struck me is that sense that you’re no longer in control of events, and that neither Snowden or you knows what’s going to happen. Was he concerned that the minute he walked out the door he was going to be swept up by unknown people in an SUV, like in an episode of “Homeland” or something?

Yeah, I think you didn't know. I think you just didn't. Obviously the media was closing in, he was getting lots of calls. And I think yeah, he didn't know what was going to happen next. And I think we somehow didn't imagine that the world would just close in on us immediately, which it did.

One of the main reasons people will want to see this film is the sense you develop of Edward Snowden as a person. Glenn talked about that the other night [at the New York Film Festival premiere], and I don't know whether I agree that it’s the most important part of the film. But it’s certainly crucial for people to get a better sense of Snowden’s personality, his personality, his motivations, the risks he took and even his vulnerability at that moment.

I mean, I was there on Friday night watching it in the room. We’ve done small screenings, but to actually have a large group of people, you know, was powerful, There's a way in which he was incredibly calm, like we met him and he was just like: “What do you guys need?” He had already made all his choices and was basically going to accept whatever the consequences were after that. We were sort of more disoriented at first, and trying to figure out: Wow, he's so young, and, like, what is this technology? It's confusing. He was just, like, calm, but then you realized that there was a clock ticking, because the government knew that he had left the country and as soon as we started publishing [Snowden’s leaked information], they show up at his house, and his girlfriend tells him about it. All that kind of stuff stared to bubble up while I was filming. It's a portrait of a person at extraordinary risk in his life, who had made a decision that was obviously a life-altering and life-threatening decision.

I'm glad you kept in a couple of moments of humor – in a movie that overall is not funny at all -- because it gives us a little bit more texture of him as a person. When he's playing the slightly irritated I.T. professional, talking to Glenn about SD cards and thumb drives and stuff, that's funny. Of course it’s also his area of expertise, so it's giving you a sense of what he's been doing for a living.

Absolutely. Those scenes are … I really love them. And I think most people can kind of relate to Glenn because he's just trying to figure out: What the fuck are you talking about? Snowden comes at it like, he was there to do a brain dump, and sort of, OK, this is what you need to know, one two three four.

How did you negotiate the idea of filming Snowden from almost the first time you met him, or at least your first private conversation? Did that develop over the course of your email correspondence?

Yeah, it did. We started corresponding in January 2013, after he had tried to reach out to Glenn, but they didn't connect on encryption. So then I got an email in January asking me for my encryption key. I shared it and he responded and we started a correspondence. And he basically said, “I work in the intelligence community. I have evidence of massive NSA surveillance and wrongdoing. I have documents to prove it. You're going to need a team, and please include Glenn in the team.” But I really thought, for the first three months of our correspondence that the story would be that he was anonymous and would remain anonymous. I would get documents at some point and report on them, and I would never know who the person was.

And then in April he basically said, “I plan to come forward, and I'm not going to be able to remain anonymous.” He actually asked me to do something that's kind of contrary to what I thought my role was, to protect a source. He said, “Actually, no, I want you to paint a target on my back. I want you to say that I am the person.” He said he didn't want to leak information that then led to a massive investigation that destroyed the lives of many people. The footprint [meaning exactly what Snowden had taken, and where it had come from] was there, and he wanted to keep the footprint because he didn't want anyone to question the authenticity of the documents.

As soon as he told me that, I was like, OK, this is a bit of a game changer in terms of what I could do as a filmmaker. So I said, “Well if that's the case, if you are going to be identified as a source, then I want to meet you, and I want to film you, and understand your motivation, because only you can do that.” His reply was "No." He said that he didn't want to be the story, that the story was the information, not him, and that he didn't want to be a distraction. He also raised a concern about the risk of us being in the same place at the same time, the reporters working on the information and him, because if the government tried to shut it down, if we're all in the same place at the same time, then there's a risk that the reporting would stop. So I had to make sure there was a plan, so if we were meeting and we were shut down, that the reporting could continue. And I said, “Listen, people are going to talk about you, and come after you, whether or not you speak out.” I made a convincing argument, and he agreed. And that's how it led to the Hong Kong meeting.

You were making the point that regardless of what he wanted, some portion of the media coverage was going to focus on the individual behind the leaks rather than the substance of the leaks, because that’s what the media is drawn to.


Maybe this is an overly cynical observation, but we have the object lesson of Julian Assange, where issues relating to his personality, and allegations about his private conduct, have obscured some of the work that he's done. What's interesting of the case of Snowden, at least as you depict him, is that learning more about him as an individual helps rather than hinders. He seems to have such a clear idea of what he's doing and why he's doing it. To my mind, the film directly addresses many of the negative things people have said about him: the allegation that he's naïve, that he hadn’t thought deeply about all this and didn’t really understand the consequences. Or the argument that he was some sort of a narcissist who was doing this to become famous.

I mean, I certainly wasn't making an agenda film in that regard. I definitely tried to keep the outside chatter, like, outside the editing room. My job and the job of my editor was to make a film that would speak to the footage that we shot, not just to be reactive to the media. But I agree that the narrative that the film tells contradicts some of these narratives that we've heard -- because it simply does, because they're essentially false narratives. People can look at the film and decide whether or not they agree or disagree with his decision and his reasoning, but you can't really make an argument that he's an agent for a foreign power. That argument just doesn't work, it completely collapses, because it's very clear that what he's doing is based on a set of beliefs and risks that he's taking on himself, and not on behalf on anyone else. So I would agree that it does undermine some narratives.

Now, let’s be clear that there’s a lot more to the Edward Snowden story that we don’t see here. So there’s still room for conspiracy theories to be spun. Most obviously, you weren't with him in Sheremetyevo Airport when he was stuck there for 40 days.

I tried, I tried. I asked and it didn't work out.

You couldn't actually get there? Or the WikiLeaks people who were handling his travel and legal issues didn’t want you there?

It was just ... Yeah. My profile was just too high, and it was a little bit touch-and-go right then. But I did ask. I did put in a request.

Now, at the end of the film you show us just a little about his life in Moscow, including the fact that Lindsay Mills, his girlfriend, is now living there with him. We just see a few images, and I get the impression you had to manage that very carefully. Was there any reluctance on Snowden’s part or anybody else's part when it came to revealing even that much?

Mm-hm. [Yes.]

If that is his apartment we see in the film, and of course I don't know that for a fact, anybody with the right technology can probably figure out exactly where that is.

I mean, I've made a few trips and he's really, like … I'm not going to say too much about what I know or how he lives. There are certain things he's not going to tell me. But in terms of that last scene, I had heard, or he had told me, that Lindsay was there and I just said, “You know, that's important.” That's important because I understood the consequences of what happened to her. I felt it in the hotel room, that was the thing that was one of the most difficult things to witness, how the media went after her in such a vicious, invasive way. And how she handled it was really impressive; she just managed to completely not engage with any of it. And the fact that she was able to just say [to Snowden], “OK, I forgive you,” it says a lot about her and it says a lot about him. So I was really glad that I was able to include that in the film. But in terms of ... obviously in terms of everything, I'm careful. Even though he's identified himself, I'm careful about what I reveal so as not to increase his exposure in terms of how he ... I can't talk about those things. But I wouldn't publish anything that would, you know, lead to danger. I've spent time looking at each frame to make sure, knowing that other people will be looking at each frame.

So you recently visited Snowden in Russia and showed him the movie, but obviously without those scenes in it. Because they didn't exist yet.

Right, because I shot them while we were there.

How would you characterize his reaction to the film? What did he say to you?

My editor and I went in and we screened it for him and Lindsay. We brought a projector and we projected it. And I think she had ... I think for her it was emotional. She actually is an artist, and so she was very supportive and appreciative of some of the filmmaking choices, that it's not a talking-heads thing. That there are certain things I think she understood from a filmmaker perspective, from an artist perspective. But I think personally for her it was also hard to witness because she she had to deal with somebody knocking at her door, while we were in this hotel room in Hong Kong. I'm sure it was really rough for her to be there.

His response was actually really positive, and he didn't ... there were no vanity notes, there was no, “Oh, take that out, it doesn't make me look good.” There were some operational security notes. He took notes about every time there was a USB stick, to map out anytime there was typing. You know, we've studied the film frame by frame, to make sure that we know what we're disclosing and knowing it's going to be looked at closely. So he had a lot of notes about that, like, OK, how can a cipher text block reveal a key, and is that a key that he wants to reveal, and how should we handle that? Those kinds of technical things. As far as how he took the film, he understood what I was trying to do, and he didn't try to steer it in another direction. It was pretty positive. He's in a complicated position because he knows he's a public figure but he doesn't want to be a public figure. So there's a bit of, I think, internal ... like, he knows he is but he doesn't want to be.

But would he really rather not be in the spotlight? It sounds as if he now understands that’s important in some ways.

I don't know. I think he probably appreciates the fact that there's a record that contradicts other narratives that have been used. I think he sees that, the importance of something irrefutable.

Everybody that writes about this movie, myself included, is going to say that it has a structural resemblance to a certain kind of fictional film, like a John le Carré spy thriller. Maybe that’s a chicken and egg question, I don't know if that's just because things happened in the order that they happened, or because you consciously chose that kind of structure?

Tell me what you mean specifically.

Well, it's about a secret meeting with a mysterious source who has stolen information, and is something like a mole or a defector. And then the geography begins to expand and we have scenes all over the world, with on-screen titles that tell us we’re in Berlin or London or Rio or wherever, and it’s a story about putting together the pieces of a really large puzzle, in which some of the pieces are hidden or invisible. That’s a specific kind of thriller – not the kind with a lot of shooting in it, but a classic Cold War thriller, let’s say.

That's actually really what happened! I mean, there was a person who started emailing me, and then there was a mysterious meeting in a hotel room, and then over that there was global reverberations, and fallout and government backlash. I mean, the thing that I'd say is that, because I do sort of vérité filmmaking, film it as it happens, I definitely wanted to be on the pulse. I knew I needed to go to Rio [with Glenn Greenwald] after Hong Kong, I knew I needed to go to the Guardian offices, I wanted to capturing the global things as they happened. So when David Miranda [Greenwald’s partner] was detained in London I wasn't able to go, but I was just like, OK, we need to film him coming home. That's just obvious to me. This was a narrative, and these events were unfolding in real time, so it was natural that I would try to capture as much of that. But I also realized in the editing ... at some point we brought in some archival footage and tried to tell stories that I didn't have access to, and the film kind of rejected those. It became clear that we should stay close to the protagonists, that the protagonists were the through-lines, and so Snowden, Glenn, myself, and [former NSA official William] Binney -- we would stick close to them and tell the story through those perspectives. We couldn’t try to tell all the stories that emerged from the Snowden disclosures.

I feel like it will take a repeat viewing to focus more on some of the information delivered in this film, which is often hard to wrap your head around: A billion phone calls at a time can be processed at this particular data center or whatever it is. Those things are hard for human beings to process in the abstract, so we focus on one person's story. I guess your job is to try to balance both things, give us what we need to pull us through the story while also packing in the information.

Yeah, it is about surveillance in the NSA and the dangers in the NSA for sure, and also about the war on whistleblowers, the war on journalism, or the dangers of threats of doing journalism in the digital age. But for me, it's kind of a film about people who are courageous and who stand up and accept consequences and take personal risk. And so you have Binney and you have Snowden and you have Glenn. To me, in the end, that's a human story. It could be about other topics as well, but I'm interested in those kinds of acts of courage, acts of conscience.

How has this story changed the way you deal with data and electronic communication, as a reporter and a filmmaker and even in your personal life?

It depends who I'm talking to and what I'm doing. I mean, my general email I don’t fully trust. I have a computer that I assume is probably targeted. If I'm doing anything dealing with sensitive source-related stuff or source material, I have different computers that I use. So I have an air-gap computer that doesn't touch the Internet, and I have a secure communication computer that I trust for encryption and source-related stuff that I keep separate from other material. I have a crypto-phone -- which I think is ringing right now! If I'm working on reporting, then I'm super-careful. I keep phones out of the room, for instance.

In the very last scenes of “Citizenfour” you deal with a story that your colleague Jeremy Scahill is apparently working on right now, involving a different source in the intelligence community, someone higher up than Snowden. It’s like a little teaser for some revelations that may lie ahead

Yeah. I mean, there is ongoing reporting and in general the film is showing the threat to whistleblowers, and also how hard it is to do journalism in these times. So you have Glenn writing notes to Snowden even though they’re sitting in a room together. Like going back to analog.

You show us a few of those notes, but most of them you conceal.

That scene isn’t about breaking news or revealing anything. It’s about how hard it is to do journalism. It’s not about that information, but about Glenn and Snowden and the fact that other people have come forward and will continue to come forward. That’s always been Snowden’s perspective. He’s not the first, and he's not the last. I definitely felt that the film shouldn't end on any kind of closure, because there is none. The programs continue and the risks continue. There's the danger that once a story or an event becomes kind of book-ended, that it looks as if the choices were easy and the risks were minimal, where in fact none of that was the case.

I had somebody ask me the other day, “After the Snowden revelations came out, didn't the administration promise that there would be some sort of revision, some sort of review?” I found myself totally unable to answer the question. I was like, yeah, I remember some rhetoric about that, but I don't know whether anything has actually changed.

There have been some recommendations, not really concrete changes. I think there's been a global shift in consciousness around the dangers of surveillance. I think technology companies have made shifts. Encryption actually works, so I think that there you're seeing a growing movement of technology companies saying, OK, they want to offer privacy as a service.

Right. Apple has said that the iPhone 6 supposedly offers a new degree of privacy.

Supposedly. And I think the government's response -- it could all be just like some sort of orchestrated theater, but I think they're not happy. I get the sense that the government's not happy about offering encryption to customers. On one hand, it's now a really hard thing to get policies to change in a real way, but cryptography does work and you can download a free software program and do your Internet searches anonymously, where it doesn't tie you to your IP address. That literally will take two clicks. If you're researching something, or if you're doing anything you want to keep private, you can do it. And you don't need the government to change anything.

Edward Snowden's story obviously isn’t over. You’re clearly not going to tell me that much about what's going on with him right now. But is he going to have to live in Russia for the rest of his life?

His lawyers are looking into whether there are options in other countries, and of course that would be a good thing.

He must be aware of the potential contradiction – a refugee whistleblower living in a one-party state that is pretty much the opposite of an open society. We don't have to say good things about the United States to acknowledge that.

I mean, I think he applied for asylum in a couple dozen countries, so I think he would be certainly open to moving elsewhere.

That’s one thing to be clear about, when you have people alleging that he was working for the Russians all along, or at least that he’s become their tool. He did not particularly want to end up in Russia. It just sort of fell out that way.

That's absolutely true. On that, I know the facts. He was in transit, they were looking for airspace, trying to get to Latin America. That’s a documented fact. And then the State Department revoked his passport. So that certainly wasn't where he wanted to be.

Among other things, he wound up moving from Hawaii to Moscow. It’s hard to imagine anybody doing that on purpose. That’s got to be tough, on a personal level.

I know!

"Citizenfour" opens this week in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington. It opens Oct. 31 in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Columbia, Mo., Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego and Seattle; Nov. 7 in Amherst, Mass., Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Santa Cruz, Calif., and Santa Rosa, Calif.; Nov. 14 in Missoula, Mont., and Nashville; Nov. 21 in Albuquerque, N.M., Eugene, Ore., Fort Collins, Colo., Jefferson City, Mo., and Springfield, Mo.; Nov. 26 in St. Louis; and Nov. 28 in Phoenix, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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