A Conversation With Laura Poitras, Director of ‘Citizenfour’

In her filmmaking, the director Laura Poitras—my guest on this edition of Radio Motherboard—likes to document reality as it happens, those moments of uncertainty that often don’t appear on film.

“There’s something about how we look at the past which has a kind of finality and closure to it, where life doesn’t usually happen that way,” she told me.

When she started receiving emails in early 2013 from an anonymous source, she could feel one of those moments suddenly enfolding around her.

“I had a sense, okay, this was going to find its way into a film or some other art project, but it was clear I was being pulled into a journey that felt a lot like, you know, a drama in terms of what he was communicating to me and the risks it was clear that were being taken.”

Poitras, who would turn this moment into the opening of her new documentary Citizenfour, knew something about risk management. In 2006, she began to be stopped and searched at international borders, and soon discovered she had been placed on a US government watch list, possibly related to filming she had done in Iraq for her documentary, My Country, My Country.

When she relocated to Berlin in order to protect the privacy of her work and her sources, she couldn’t have known then just how extensive the surveillance system was, and how great the risks would be. But in the Spring of 2013, after inviting Glenn Greenwald to help her report, she began speaking to lawyers in the US about further protections. She warned friends that they too may become the subject of government surveillance.

And then in June of 2013, with a new, shocking cache of files to pour over, she and Greenwald boarded a 12-hour flight to Hong Kong to finally meet her anonymous source.

Fortunately, the setting for these revelations make up the central scenes of Citizenfour: the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden, her source, would step out of anonymity, and where the biggest news story of 2013 would take shape. They are some of the most arresting, uncertain moments I’ve ever seen on film.

When  I spoke to Poitras last month, my mind jumped immediately to those moments. They capture a central, entangled set of themes that drive Citizenfour: not only the tenseness of Snowden’s decision, but also the work of the journalists trying to make sense of it, and the work of Poitras herself, who managed to keep her camera rolling for almost the entire time. She was not merely an observer but, given her intimacy with Snowden and the surveillance that had already targeted her, a central player.

“It was sort of like being in freefall,” she said.

Listen to our conversation,  find a theater playing the film, and read my profile of Poitras, Lucy Teitler’s  review of the film and other recent documentaries about leaks, and  our archive of stories on surveillance

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