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Interview: Laura Poitras Talks Incendiary Doc ‘Citizenfour,’ How Edward Snowden Is Like Aaron Sorkin & More

Interview: Laura Poitras Talks Incendiary Doc ‘Citizenfour,’ How Edward Snowden Is Like Aaron Sorkin & More

Laura Poitras’ “Citizen Four” is bound to be either inspiring or infuriating depending on your perspective on the actions taken by its protagonist, Edward Snowden. It’s a sinewy portrait of the man behind last year’s remarkable series of revelations about the breadth of the U.S. government’s surveillance programs, enacted with the support of some of the world’s largest telecommunications and internet companies (read our review). The film, which premiered recently at the New York Film Festival before its October 24th release stateside, is the final part of director Poitras’ trilogy of documentaries that unearth the chilling ambiguities beneath Washington’s official line on the status of the Iraq War (the Oscar-nominated “My Country, My Country,” from 2005), the mindset of the men they claim to defend the American public from (2010’s haunting “The Oath”), and, in her newest film, the means that they are using to do so.

Poitras, who after years of being harassed by the U.S. government when entering or leaving the country, is based in Berlin now. In town to present the film to an audience for the first time, The Playlist caught up with her at her midtown hotel a few days following the premiere screening, one that concluded with a rare, sustained level of applause.

The movie ends with a really powerful and sort of chilling assertion that 1.2 million Americans are on watch lists of various—
Actually it doesn’t say Americans. It says people.

People, excuse me. Is this something that you assume the President is aware of?
The President is aware of it. When I filmed that, it hadn’t been reported, but we’ve since reported it.

On The Intercept or elsewhere?
Yeah, [journalist] Jeremy Scahill published it.

What are your hopes for what the movie can do in terms of changing or informing the debate about privacy and national security?
I’m interested in that, but I’m also interested in you seeing that this took a tremendous amount of courage. Obviously the key here was Snowden. So I’m interested in it being sort of a document as much about surveillance as it’s about courage and heroism.

This film feels more personal than your other films. The first voice we hear is your voice. There’s a significant amount of text that contextualizes events personally. Was that something that was difficult to unpack in the editing or that was particularly challenging to try to get right?
I actually think in all my films I’m in them, because I’m behind the camera and you’re sort of aware. But in this one it was obvious that events were unfolding and that it needed acknowledgement. What we ended up deciding on is that I’m like a kind of guide or narrator through the film. And so it begins with me being put on a watch list and so on. We did look at some other ways to do it at different points. I did some filming after Hong Kong where I was reporting and we filmed it. And we tried it in the cut and it never worked. It just felt like if you were reading a novel or something and you had a narrator that was speaking in the first person and all of a sudden you were talking about them in the third person. Often our people look off camera and you know that there’s somebody there so at some point we were editing and there was a delicate balance having a narrative quality and then also falling into personal essay. And I didn’t want to make a personal essay film.

You didn’t finish the film until just days before it screened. I imagine security based reasons may have been chief among those. It’s very unusual for a movie to find a distributor like Radius and have them open it nationwide after having not been seen in any form.
In terms of the timing of when we finished the film, it really is kind of a live organism right now. It is a long form documentary, but it also contains things that I couldn’t have anticipated even just weeks and months ago. We wanted to not close doors so we kept as much time as possible to respond to events as they were occurring. We built a post-production schedule where we could do that. But yes, it’s highly unusual. In terms of how we’ll roll it out and who we’ve been working with, everyone’s been incredible. We knew that there are things that we wouldn’t be able to know, or that we wouldn’t be able to share, until the last minute. Radius, they approached us in February.

They knew you were making the film?
They knew. We told a few people. We tried to keep it super under the radar. We didn’t want any buzz leading up to it. We didn’t want any chatter. We didn’t want a vacuum where people were anticipating it or people asking when it would be done. We wanted to keep it a completely creative process, but we also knew that we didn’t want to premiere it and then try to sell that film at Sundance, because then it’s not going to be in the theaters for six months. So it seemed like this would be a situation where when the film was done there would be an urgency to get it into the world as soon as possible. And so Radius became a partner earlier in the year. It might have been Josh Braun from Submarine who brokered a meeting when there was a bunch of people in town in Berlin for the Berlin Film Festival, which is where we are. So we had a few meetings and they immediately— rather Tom Quinn immediately expressed interest in it. And I knew Tom’s work from having worked with Magnolia in the past. He just said, “Okay let’s do it.” And so I’d also wanted to work with Participant, I’ve known Diane Weyermann for a long time and she also just said, “Okay I really want to be involved in this film.” She was okay with us saying we’re going to do this film and there’s going to be a lot of unknowns, it’s going to have to be a leap of faith, but we will make sure that we find out what we need to know when we need to know it. 

And so that’s been sort of across the board with all of the people we’ve dealt with. The New York Film Festival, we took them to another screening place. There was some redacted scenes. They didn’t see the end of the film. Nobody actually saw the end of the film. Pretty much everybody has gone through enormous hoops and broken many of the rules to support the film, which I’m incredibly grateful for. But I think we sort of made a strong argument that, yes we’re making a documentary, but we’re also dealing with security issues that change the nature of what we could present to people ahead of time. Also, I very much wanted to avoid any hype, I really wanted to not have any sort window between when it premiered and when it was distributed. Not to do any kind of hype or buildup, because let’s face it, Snowden and the NSA story, there’s a lot of awareness. We don’t need to build that sort of ground work that’s already been laid.

Do you feel in danger of being subpoenaed?
Wouldn’t you?

Yes, yes I would.
Absolutely, I feel in danger of being subpoenaed, in danger of being called a material witness—that’s why my footage is not in the United States.

I imagine many contingencies are set up in the event that that takes place.
Yeah, many contingencies. Lots of encryption. Even if they got a hard drive, if they raided my house they wouldn’t be able to see anything. Everything is encrypted. I think the government knows that with me, even if they ultimately have to hold me in contempt, which I don’t know that’s in prison. Although in the case of Jim Risen of the New York Times, they’re subpoenaing him. Jim’s a personal friend and I know what he’s going through. But ultimately I think they may have reasons why they don’t want to go that route with me. I suspect think they don’t want to start locking up journalists.

2005-2006 was when you first began to notice that you were being stopped. How has your perspective on the possibility of America ever being free of this kind of behavior on the part of the National Security Apparatus changed? Do you think that concerned citizens can affect change in these matters at all in this kind of perilous historical moment?
I mean, when I first started being stopped at the border in 2006, I was naive. You know I answered questions, I said I was a filmmaker, I was going to a film festival. And they took all these notes and stuff. And then I was stopped again and again and again. 

At some point I ceased being naïve. I started realizing okay this is systemic; I’m caught in the system. And it’s not about to change and I became more interested in really putting up a fight. I would fight the customs agent, in the secondary screening area where most people are just scared and intimidated. I would be arguing with them. And they would be like, “Nobody else is arguing,” I’d be like, “You know what you’re doing, this is wrong.” And, you know, the sad thing is I don’t see any evidence of reining in this kind of national security apparatus in the wake of 9/11. I don’t see at all.

Did you expect to see that in the years after 2008?
Yeah, of course. Wouldn’t you?

Are you disappointed given how you thought things would change after ’08? And if so, how do you think effective change can be sought if not politically?
Of course I am. I thought things would change! I did a short film about Guantanamo and it begins with Obama on his first day in office saying we are closing Guantanamo. And I actually believed it. I think he believed it tooyou don’t do a press conference like that if you actually don’t have the gumption to try, it’s not like a bait and switch. You believe you’re going to close Guantanamo. So the fact that it’s still open I think is terrifying; because I think what we’re seeing is the policies that were going on before him being institutionalized. I mean there are shifts, but these kind of radical reactions in response to 9/11 are now actually being normalized. We have Guantanamo for instancehow do you close it now? Drone strikes for instancehow do you stop them? 

These practices have taken on lives of there own and we’ve continued on the same path. I think you have to believe that normal citizens can make a difference. I believe that. Awareness is just the beginning. You can’t predict what’s going to happen, what are going to be the tipping points. Who knows what the tipping points are? I hope that a constellation of events will trigger something, but I don’t have the answers unfortunately. I think Snowden is a tipping point in terms of what they’re doing. While the programs are still in place, I think consciousness is changing.

When you last saw Snowden—how would you characterize his state of mind after over a year now of being a famous fugitive who is somewhat constrained in terms of his movements?
He has political asylum actually right now in Russia. So I think he does have some ability to move around. I’ve visited him a couple times. It was during the last time I visited that we filmed the last scene where you see him. And so that was once.

The single take outside of their window at night?
Yup, that was my last. I went there to show him the cut. I always show my subjects a cut of the film before it’s released and so I showed him. Honestly, it was the first time I had seen him since [Snowden’s girlfriend] Lindsay had moved. I think that the amount of international focus on this issue that has been raised and the sense that he took enormous personal risks in order to ensure that this would happen, it has not gone unnoticed. And I think the real question now is, what are we going to do now that we know we live in this world? I think the general public’s perception of things, both internationally and also in the U.S., have been permanently altered and I think there is a lot of support for him. I think he has a lot of popular support.

What becomes of the volumes of still unreleased documents that he passed on? And is there some sort of like larger plan to release these documents, whether through established news organizations or other channels?
There’s definitely more reporting ongoing with various partners, for sure. we have had conversations about what when and how its appropriate to release certain things.

Is he active in those conversations still or is it more difficult because of his asylum?
He’s still a source so I’m in touch with him if I’m working on a story and I have a question. But in terms of actually saying what stories we’re working on or making a priority, he’s not involved in that. I mean he’s, as he made very explicitly clear in the film, given over that responsibility to journalists. In terms of the larger picture, I think I would like to see more reporting, more scaling, more publishing of documents. And there’s been just a delicate balance of how to do it in a way where there aren’t risks. There are things that I think I’m not interested in releasing, such as publishing the names of people who work in the national security apparatus. I don’t see that that’s valuable. So there’s sort of a balance between how to maintain a certain security over what gets published and how to partner with other organizations to release things in the public interest. But I would like to see this be more in public.

The series of criteria that goes into deciding what information to release to the public and what not release. I assume that’s a significant ethical challenge?
Sure, sure, sure. On one hand it’s sort of what happens all the time, you make editorial decisions as a journalist, you decide what’s of interest and what’s not. But there are also real security dangers, like how to keep the material secure or not. And again, we’re talking about things in a way that considers whether it’s not in the public interest and whether it shouldn’t be released because of that.

So putting people in danger potentially is something that you don’t want to do, unequivocally?
I mean it’s more than that, but I just don’t want to, yes. There are high level officials that are responsible for these programs and there are people who work for these agencies and the people who work for the agencies are not making the programs. I don’t want to expose those people or the extent of their involvement with the programs and what they’re personally doing. It doesn’t feel like it’s the right thing to do.

What did it feel like personally to watch the film with an audience at the premiere?
It was actually an interesting experience, because we had coarse screenings, work in progress screenings, so you know we’d seen the film play with audiences but not a large audience.

Not with 400 New York sophisticates.
Yeah. And what I thought was most powerful was how there was humor that people responded to. It was there, the humor that I saw, but people really saw it. You see it in the larger group. And also just the dynamic between, Snowden and [lawyer/journalist] Glenn [Greenwald]. You sense how Snowden really carries the screen in a way.

Absolutely.
I know he’s charismatic, I know he’s articulate, but it’s a different thing to see him with a packed house, carrying the screen. It seems like everything he says people are totally on his side. So that was new for me.

That obviously had to be a conscious construction.
How do you mean?

I mean that cinema is a plastic medium. Even when working in the seemingly naturalistic form of verite documentary, one makes choices that shape one’s characters.
Of course, right. When I go into a situation I’m filming verite, I shoot it like as you would approach a narrative, master shots, cutaways, etc. I try to capture the drama so that you can maximize the narrative potential of the moment that’s there. He’s pretty charismatic on screen and even when he’s totally geeking out, even if you don’t know what exactly he’s talking about, you’re still with him. There is this delicate balance between the audience and the subject in a documentary. There’s a lot of information in the film, which you can kind of tune out, that people can max out on, because it’s just like, okay here’s another program, another thing. I don’t understand it. But I felt like there was a bit of an Aaron Sorkin thing about him. You know how when you see his scripts where things are moving really fast and you’re only tracking things a bit, but you’re enjoying the ride even if you’re not tracking everything.

Yes, you’re not getting everything.
Yeah, you’re not. Snowden is a little bit like that. He’s geeking out, you’re like you think I know what he’s saying, but sometime you don’t catch all the details, but you’re with him. So that was interesting. He the protagonist of the film and we built it around him. But I hadn’t seen it in a packed theater, so that was new.

You referred to this film as the last film of your 9/11 trilogy but given how much the process of making these three films has changed your life, the trajectory of your own career and your future, do you think your work is going to continue in this vein?
I’ve considered making a move onto other topics.

I certainly don’t imagine you’re going to direct a studio sequel anytime soon.
Let me be honest. If a source comes up to me and gives me, say, the videotapes that they took of torturing people that they said they destroyed, and in an American conflict zone, well I would be like, I’m not gonna say no. I’m not gonna not make that movie. So I don’t know exactly what I’ll do next in terms of topics, I mean, I’m still dealing with this one. I really feel like as a documentary filmmaker it’s important to have these consistent concerns, but I’m also interested in exploring different ways of working. More about creative challenges rather than topic changes. I’m having a lot of fun doing shorts that you can kind of put into the world a little bit quicker and with less of a headache. There’s that and then I’m going to do something with the Whitney, they’re going to give me space that will be nonlinear. So I’m interested more in working in different modes than I am in feature length docs. I sort of joked that there might be a sequel, but I don’t know. And there are some branches that could take off from this film.

Citizenfour” opens in New York, D .C., San Francisco and Los Angeles on Friday, October, 24th via TWC Radius.Here’s an additional 28 minute NYFF press conference conference conversation with Laura Poitras.

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