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Laura Poitras: “I don’t want to be the story”

This year's Oscar for Best Documentary goes to Laura Poitras for her film on Edward Snowden, Citizenfour. Read Exberliner's exclusive interview with the Berlin-based US director.

Image for Laura Poitras:
Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Laura Poitras, the Berlin-based US filmmaker who met and filmed Edward Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, looks back on the eight days that shook the world. Her Oscar-winning film Citizenfour is a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentation of real-time history in the making.

You’ve heard of Edward Snowden, right? Thank Laura Poitras for that. Poitras was the hands and nerves behind the camera when the young NSA contractor blew the whistle on his country’s shameless, unrestrained bulk surveillance of its own citizens, in a Hong Kong hotel room in June 2013. There, over eight nail-biting days (would they manage before US intelligence caught up with them?), together with star blogger Glenn Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill, they carefully plotted the release of Snowden’s explosive revelations to the world.

Some 16 months later, Poitras looks back on the Hong Kong episode in Citizenfour, a gripping documentary that unveils some unreleased behind-the-scenes footage of what can retrospectively be called a historical moment: a staggeringly determined, poised Snowden (who seems to have it all under control – except for his hair, which keeps sticking up on the back of his head, despite his best effort at slicking it back with water) and the increasingly tense duo of journalists that accompanies him through his amazingly risky whistleblowing journey from the first anonymous leaks to his personal “coming out” before Poitras’ camera.

When “Citizenfour” contacted her, Poitras was in Berlin busy working on the last instalment of a trilogy about post 9/11 national security policies, this time a film on “the important zeitgeist issue” of domestic surveillance. Snowden’s irruption into her life was to dramatically change the course of the film’s narrative, propelling both the Hong Kong episode and the filmmaker to centre stage. 

It’s a bit of a privilege to meet Laura Poitras. First, because she belongs to that rare category of fearless, incorruptible journalists who’ll put in the time and take the risks to tell the story. But also because she belongs to that even smaller circle of journalists humble enough to step into the background of the very story they risked it all to reveal to the public, be it a planetary scoop.

“I don’t want to be the story,” says Edward Snowden in the film. Poitras never wanted to either. Yet, in their respective ways, they both are. They are one amazing story’s great protagonists. 

Before Snowden came into your life, you were already working on a documentary on domestic surveillance. What was the original idea?

I began documenting things for this film in 2011. I was interested in the themes of surveillance, of journalism and the shifting zeitgeist. The first shoot of that film was going down to Rio to meet Glenn [Greenwald] because I was really interested in this emerging outsider journalism. And I had this footage with Glenn which I never thought would go into the film, but history changed. I was also filming with William Binney, an NSA whistleblower who went on the record for the first time during that time. I filmed with Jacob Appelbaum, travelling with him to Egypt and Tunisia, where he was teaching activists how to circumvent state surveillance so that they could stay safe, and also with Julian Assange.

So you were already on topic…

It was this moment where we were seeing whistleblowers: we had [Chelsea] Manning, we had Binney – people who were saying there was something wrong with what was happening in the world and who would make personal sacrifices to reveal information to the public. We had the war on terror cracking down more, but also people stepping forwards and saying: this is not right. These were the themes I was working with. In 2012 I made a short film featuring Binney for The New York Times. In the fall of 2012, I came to Berlin to edit this material I had started shooting. Everyone I was filming was being targeted by the US government.

Why Berlin?

I made a promise that I wouldn’t edit in the US, partly because of the fact that I had been detained at the border so many times I felt that I couldn’t really protect the source material. I talked to Jacob about where he would recommend. He said: “Don’t go to the UK.” He told me Berlin is the place to be if you’re going to work on surveillance issues. I came to edit in Berlin in the fall of 2012 and soon I started working with the amazing editor Mathilde Bonnefoy [Run Lola Run]. So I was in Berlin before Snowden contacted me. 

I came to Berlin to edit this material I had started shooting. Everyone I was filming was being targeted by the US government.

In early January 2013, Snowden emailed you under the alias “Citizenfour”. How did it happen exactly?

A mutual friend said “There’s someone who wants your public key, do you want me to forward it?” That’s when I got the first email from Snowden, who said, “Can we exchange keys? Is your computer secure?” 

Unlike Greenwald, with whom Snowden failed to make contact because of his lack of competence with email encryption, you already knew how to communicate securely.

Because of the work I was doing, I knew what he was talking about. So when I got that first email from Snowden, I was like, here’s my key, what’s up, who are you, what do you want? And he started to tell me he had information. 

And you believed it immediately?

In February he sent a long email with a lot of information. That’s when I said, this sounds like it is really legitimate and if it is, then it’s really dangerous for the source, dangerous for the reporting – and I really need to take more precautions. I switched over to a computer that I bought in cash, and I started using [the portable encrypted operating system] Tails and only checking emails from public places, not from my home, to communicate, because this was at a really high level. I was worried that they were trying to entrap me or somebody that I knew. 

Could you share your doubts with anyone? 

Only face-to-face, I didn’t do anything electronically. In February I had a couple of meetings in New York, one with Ben Wizner of the ACLU for example… I have been in conflict zones and it felt a lot more dangerous than that. If this was true, it was going to anger really powerful people. I was really careful. I did confide in my close friends. I knew that if it turned out to be legitimate there would be a massive investigation, which would include everybody that I was in contact with. My team, for example: I had to tell them about the potential danger and whether they’d agree to stay on board with the film. I couldn’t tell them too much, though; it would have put them at risk.

But soon enough, Greenwald came on board. You knew each other, right?

In February, Snowden said this information is going to require more than one person to report, and he recommended Glenn. This made a lot of sense to me. We were both on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He had written about my border detention – I was detained and really questioned aggressively for years. Every time I returned to the US, they would send agents to the plane and walk me away, question me, photocopy my notebooks… That’s how I knew Glenn; I had been a subject of his journalism. And we’d been working on similar themes for years. So, in April 2013, I was in New York and managed to meet him. That’s when I told him that I had been contacted by someone who claimed to have evidence of mass surveillance and asked him whether he wanted to be involved. He said yes right away. 

I told Snowden, well, if you’re going to not remain anonymous, then let’s set up a meeting and I’ll film you.

When did you realise that this would become a central part of your film?

My understanding for the first several months of emailing was that it was going to be an anonymous source, someone who was going to provide documents and I would never know who it was. There was no expectation of a meeting because he provided no biographical information. Later in April he revealed in an email that he intended to claim responsibility for the disclosures, and that he didn’t want to hide his involvement and create a leak investigation that would destroy the lives of countless NSA employees. When he told me that, I said, well, if you’re going to not remain anonymous, then let’s set up a meeting and I’ll film you.

Did Snowden agree right away?

His first response was no… He didn’t want to be the story. Also he felt it was risky. His concern was that if the three of us, him, me and Glenn, were all at the same place at the same time, if they tried to shut us down, they could go in there and get everything and none of the reporting would happen. He felt it added risk, and he didn’t see much reward. Again, he didn’t want to be the story. I said, listen, you will be the story. That’s the way the media works and people will start speculating as soon as you identify yourself. Plus, I told him, you need to articulate your motivation.

Then you met in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong – and immediately started filming?

We had been communicating for six months. I think there was an establishment of trust. There was never a question about the camera being there. I was liberated from the need to protect his identity. And Glenn was like, he’s taking every risk he could take, so I’m not going to worry that you’re filming all of this. Same with Ewen. There was a real risk that the governments of the US or the UK would come after all of us. 

From the onset, it feels as if Snowden handed his fate over to you, saying, “you do it the way you think.” He lets you and Glenn decide what’s best.

It was clear that he had risked everything to meet with us. And unravelled his life. He had arrived at a place where he had already made those decisions. So there was an immediate intimacy because he said, “I have to trust you, I hope I am right in that trust.” It’s not a “let’s see how it goes” situation because by the time we got to that hotel room, everyone was in really deep. There was not a lot of certainty on what would happen, particularly for Ed. 

It’s amazing how poised he is. In his book, Glenn writes how whereas he couldn’t sleep a wink, Edward would get up and say, “Good night, everyone” and sleep until the following morning… in the film, his only acknowledgement of stress is when he says he hasn’t been eating much these days – he looks very thin, but otherwise, so zen!

I think that is his personality. He can compartmentalise things. He knew that he had entered into this. We were meeting somewhere at a point in his life where he had risked everything. He had made his mind and he was at peace with his decision.

In the film it becomes clear that the crux is when and how Snowden will be coming out as the author of the leaks. The tension heightens, and it’s palpable. A whistle-blower stepping forward and revealing his identity before being unmasked by the Secret Service… you’re really entering uncharted territory. It was totally uncharted territory.

Once he left, a clock started ticking. If you work for the NSA, you don’t just leave the country without it being noticed. And you don’t have three journalists getting on a plane a few days later without the government being aware. Our names were on the flight manifests. He didn’t show up to work. So the clock was ticking on how long it would take before the government put all the pieces together. Snowden wanted the first disclosures to be anonymous, for there to be a window of time before he could be identified. So the first stories – about Verizon, the PRISM program and the Presidential Policy Directive – were all anonymously sourced. But at the same time, as you see in the film, the NSA show up at his house in Hawaii and question his girlfriend, so there was a clear sense that the government was closing in. There was a chance that the US government would hold a press conference and that was how the world would hear his name for the first time. And since he had decided that he would come forward, we all thought that he should articulate his motivations first. 

Snowden says many times, “I don’t want the government to bully me into hiding” as one of his motivations, but there’s also this idea that it’s reversing the logic of power. By outing himself he’s outplaying the almighty NSA – the ultimate empowerment strategy.

There were a lot of unpredictable unknowns: you had a filmmaker there, you had journalists ready to publish, you had a source who was ready to go on the record, so it all made it possible for the story to unfold in a way that was unpredictable compared to how the government usually tries to contain these kinds of leaks. 

There’s a great, almost comical, scene when the fire alarm keeps going off – a disruptive element that suddenly brings the reality of danger closer to the hotel room. Why did you decide to keep this moment?

Because the scene is so good. There was so much tension in the room… I think I was the one who was most aware of the danger, partly because I had been communicating for so long and knew that this was going to really anger people. 

With the Snowden story, you suddenly become a protagonist of your own documentary. How did you deal with this?

It was obvious that it had to be told from a subjective point of view: the events would have happened differently if I hadn’t been involved or maybe wouldn’t have happened at all. In a card in the beginning of the film, I explain that I was placed on a watch list in 2006. The film is told in the first person. I decided to read [Snowden’s] letters. At first I thought I would ask him to read them, but then I felt that would be wrong, exploitative. The idea is that in the first part of the film, this person is unknown, so I ended up reading them. I wanted the audience to know that I am a participant. 

You also use this device of showing your exchange of encrypted chats.

I always knew the letters were going to be in the film. They were pretty mind-blowing. That was clear from the beginning. I asked for his permission in Hong Kong whether I could use them. The idea of the chats came later, because I realised I had fallen a bit outside of the narrative, so that was a way of keeping my voice in. 

How much did you consult with Snowden about this film?

He said “I trust you with the film.” When Mathilde and I travelled to Moscow and filmed the last scene with him and [his girlfriend] Lindsay, we showed him the film so he could see it before it went public. From Lindsay’s perspective it was all very emotional because she didn’t know anything back then – he wanted to protect her – and learned about what was happening when the government came to her house. 

What about his reaction?

He was great. He didn’t question why I had made a story about him. I think he had a lot of questions about operational security like “if we show this cypher text, will it lead to a key that they can find?” He went into his security mode, thinking every frame of this film would be studied. 

What struck you the most about Edward Snowden?

I think he’s an incredibly compassionate person. He’ll worry about other people around him before he’ll think about himself. He sees people for who they are. He doesn’t try to have expectations or something. He’s super generous of spirit. Did he become like that because he chose to make this monumental life choice and he therefore has this kind of calm about the world? Or was he always like that? I don’t know… 

Did you find that he had changed in Moscow?

Yes, you feel that there is a certain kind of weight, that it’s not been easy. 

What reaction do you expect from audiences?

I think it’s hard to watch this film and not be somewhat inspired by people who make courageous choices; who make personal sacrifices to expose something they think the public has a right to know. 

You’ve been back to the US a few times, despite the risks and ongoing intimidations. Were you ever harassed again?

No. But I won’t be intimidated from doing my work. If the government decides to issue a subpoena I will fight it. I’ve just given them a whole lot of evidence they can work with. But I think it’s a record of an encounter where someone has given the public information that they have a right to know. 

Back in April, when asked whether you’d consider going back to the US, you said “Yes, absolutely.”

I’m very much homesick, but at the same time I feel that Berlin is very much home now. 

Originally published in issue #132, November 2014.