During the opening minutes of “CITIZENFOUR,” it hits you that filmmaker Laura Poitras was actually filming NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden from their first meeting. She shows us first hand what happened and takes us deep into his mind in her new documentary “CITIZENFOUR,” a New York Film Festival world premiere and Oscar winner for Best Documentary. It premiered on HBO February 23, the day after the Oscars.
Poitras documents the eight days she spent in a Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill as Snowden prepares to drop the bomb on the world.
While it should not have been a shock that last year’s winner of the International Documentary Association’s Courage Under Fire Award was preparing a film on Snowden, the cone of secrecy surrounding the project meant that the announcement that the film was finished, breaking at the NYFF and hitting theaters October 24 –via RADiUS and Participant–was big news indeed.
Poitras first posted an Op-Ed video piece about NSA whistle-blower William Binney in the NYT. That led Snowden to approach her, as she describes below.
Here are the film’s first raves. Watch the trailer and New York Film Festival press conference with the filmmakers below.
Anne Thompson: There’s so much information in the film, yet it’s still a thriller. How do you see your role as breaking news journalist vs. cinema vérité filmmaker? You kept yourself out of the film. Yet you were an active participant in this story.
Laura Poitras: Yeah. I’m definitely a participant in the film. It’s told from a subjective point-of-view, and it was clear that had to happen. So I had to let the audience know that I’m a participant, and that the things that were happening were happening to me — that I’m not just observing. But then there was a delicate balance, because I really do love cinema vérité — what it can do in terms of filming things as they happen right before the camera, and witnessing events unfold. Since I often shoot, I can’t be in two places at once, and I also love constructing narratives through scenes in the same way, using vérité material. So I love what it can do in terms of storytelling, heightening drama. It was a balance to be sort of a narrator of a story and also have the kind of scene-building that I really am drawn to as a filmmaker. I didn’t want it to tip into personal essay, because that kind of storytelling is not something that I’m as inclined to do.
You also opted not to put yourself in it. There’s just the one glimpse in the mirror. Almost to say, “I’m here, but I’m not here.”
I’m in it, but also you can hear my voice. They’re talking about “Laura,” and Glenn looks off-camera… But you’re aware that I’m in the room.
It’s just you, right? No crew? You’re doing the sound and everything?
It’d be different if I happened to work differently and I had a crew, then you would’ve seen me more in front of the camera. But the narrator is not always seen.
You decided to use your own voice as you read the material?
Yeah, that’s my voice. So I’m reading the emails that I received from Snowden. At first, I always knew when I was receiving the letters that they were extraordinary, and that they would probably find their way into some piece of filmmaking or art or something, because receiving them was quite an emotional and dramatic experience: the magnitude of what was being described and the risks I thought the person was taking, and the dangers and risks I thought they contained for me. So, it was pretty clear that I wanted all those things to be part of the film. And then, later, once in Hong Kong, I thought about approaching Ed to record them, and that just never felt right; it didn’t sit well with me to ask him to revisit.
It’s like a re-enactment.
Yeah. And, also, it would’ve had the effect — since his voice is known — that the audience wouldn’t have had the experience I had, which is, these letters came to me, it was one person — and once I had this encounter in Hong Kong, I had to readjust.
I must say: watching the movie, in that moment, you must’ve known this. When you see Snowden for the first time, you gasp. It hits you in the gullet. That’s why it was so important to talk him into going on camera as he revealed his information. Which was an issue, right?
Yeah. Right. Originally, for the first three months of our correspondence, I thought he was an anonymous source — that I would someday meet him, that I would get documents, I would find people to report with, and that would just be somebody from my life to disappear. That I would never know who they are. Then he said that he would come forward and claim responsibility for these disclosures, and he didn’t want to have to others be investigated. That there’d be a leak investigation he didn’t want to draw. He just wanted to claim his involvement, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to be front-and-center. And I asked him, and once he told me he was going to claim responsibility, to let me meet him and film him.
So that must’ve been part of your decision-making. He approached you. This is one of the biggest stories of any journalist’s lifetime. How much do you identify yourself as a journalist and as a filmmaker, and did you have to make a choice there. You did do journalism. I get that. But you went to Glenn Greenwald as well, and you didn’t ask questions in the interview in Hong Kong.
A documentary, I consider it journalism and storytelling, but I felt that I still was acting as a journalist, particularly when we were corresponding, but then, clearly, when I was in Hong Kong, I was interested in documenting the encounter and the reporting as it was happening, and to really focus on having a record of that meeting, rather than to spend time working on the documents, or reading them, or doing print reporting. So that’s what happened when we were in Hong Kong, and there were different hats once I returned to Berlin. I felt this strong obligation that I needed to shift and focus on reporting, and that’s when I teamed up with Spiegel and others.
But you’re right: I come at it from an independent, film-documentary background. From what he was telling me, it was clear that this would require reporting by a number of people, and I wasn’t trying to hang on to it. I wanted to partner with people. It was clear that it needed to be conducted with editorial overview and within institutions, just because of the magnitude of the reporting — so that was an easy decision, because I don’t work for a newsroom. It was clear that I was going to work with other people. That Snowden had, early on, said that I should contact Glenn.
When I watch Snowden, I’m looking into his eyes, reading him. As you were talking to him were you going, “Is this guy for real? What is his motivation? What is he really thinking?”
Early on, in the correspondence, I was pretty confident that he was for real. Even though I kept the skepticism going, I didn’t want to feel the risk that this was entrapment or something. So I had to keep skepticism alive, so I wouldn’t do anything I’d potentially regret — if it was something I didn’t understand. But I was pretty confident, early on in the correspondence, that he was legit. When we met him, Glenn and I first went through the shock of him being much younger than we thought he would be, but then that shock died down, and the next thing was, “Wow, he’s incredibly calm and articulate in a situation where you think somebody would be nervous and apprehensive.”
So it was Glenn and I who were nervous and trying to get our footing, and he was just calm. We arrived meeting a person who’d basically decided to unravel their life, made a decision with potentially really negative consequences, and I think he’d already made peace with whatever those consequences were. At that point, when we entered the hotel room, his role was, “How can I help you do this journalism? Let me explain to you what I know in this limited time that we have, so that you guys can report.” So it was really a brain-dump.
So Glenn had no problem being on film. But Ewen MacAskill?
Ewan was assigned late. I think he could barely pack; that’s why he’s wearing the blue shirt every day. He was fine with it. I think he knew this was a source that I was bringing. That I, basically, was saying, “These are the ground rules.” And he saw the film. He was very moved by it.
You feel a certain ratcheting-up of tension. The first eight days are one thing. Later, when he has to make those big decisions, that felt very tense.
Are you talking about right before he left the hotel room? I think, when we got there, we knew there was a clock ticking. Because he left the country, and when you work for these agencies and leave the country, it gets flagged. So, then, once Glenn published the first story, that’s the day the NSA knocked on the home he shared with his partner, Lindsay Mills, so there was a clear sense that the government knew he was missing and probably knew that he was the source of the leaks as we were publishing. As he decided that he was going to come forward, we said, “Okay, we’re going to do it before the government does.” And so there was a bit of a clock ticking as the days went by. There’s this tension that increases with the publication and the magnitude, and I think all of us were surprised by the response to the reporting. We didn’t quite understand.
Well, we were in this kind of bubble, in a certain way, and not really understanding the impact it was having. We “got it,” but we didn’t really get it.
Were you in some kind of denial in order to do it?
I wouldn’t call it “denial,” but I definitely was in a state of shock, because I had an experience I’d never had: I shot things I didn’t remember having filmed until I got back to the editing room. So obviously there was denial, shock, repression — whatever words you want to use, but it felt dangerous, and it felt risky, and it felt it was uncertain what the outcome would be for all of us, but especially for him.
In tracking your story, I to this day do not understand exactly what it was you did to trigger the treatment the government gave you, the scrutiny and abuse every time you entered the country.
I actually don’t think it’s anything I’ve done, because I actually haven’t done anything.
Was it “My Country, My Country”? Because that’s the timeline, right?
My interpretation of it is that it started happening in 2006, in the summer, which was six months after I premiered the film at Berlin. So I started being stalked in 2006. I don’t think there’s some thought police that looks at films, says “we don’t like this film,” and puts people on a watch-list. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it was the content of my film that triggered anything. But I do think there’s a system we’ve created in the wake of 9/11 — these kinds of secret processes where people —
That flags people.
That flags people, and there are people who are not really looking to review it — therefore, once you get caught in this system, there’s no way out of it. It’s sort of like this Kafka-esque system that exists and is self-perpetuating. Once somebody, like, points at something, nobody ever reviews it, and you’re just there.
So it’s not Herbert Hoover or President Obama, per se.
Not only have I never been asked by the government a single question — which is what one thinks would happen if there’s any kind of a due process — but when I started challenging the government’s responses, they wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of a watch list. Which is pretty Kafka-esque. But I see it more as a self-perpetuating system that, once you get sucked into it, there’s no way to get out of it. Honestly, as an American, there are many people who have much worse experiences: they’re put on no-fly lists and never find out why. I don’t think the question we should be asking is, “How did you get on this list?” It’s, “Why do we have this list? Why do we have a list where people can’t challenge or even learn about their placement so they can challenge it?” What is the due process?
But that must’ve heightened your own sense of insecurity, your own sense of paranoia. It drove you out of the country.
It didn’t heighten my sense of paranoia or insecurity; it heightened my sense of resolve. I have two choices: one is to keep working or do other types of work. I wasn’t going to stop working, so I was going to continue, and I was going to protect my source material so I could keep working. And I’m not going to let that intimidate me so I can’t work. So I did make the decision to locate to Berlin to edit, because I didn’t feel confident, as a journalist, given the harassment I was facing, that I could bring material back across the border. This is pre-Snowden.
To be honest, that’s a pretty extreme condemnation of what the government has done, coming down on whistleblowers and journalists. On one hand, I don’t want to minimize the impact of all the detentions; on the other, I know that I’m still able to work. I don’t think that anyone’s trying to stop me from making films. I still think I’m able to work as a journalist, but I did make the decision that working in the U.S. didn’t make sense, given the kind of harassment I’ve experienced
Has it stopped?
It did stop. It stopped in 2012. There was an incident where I was returning through Newark, and I was taking notes of who was detaining me and the questions they were asking, and they all freaked out and basically threatened to handcuff me for taking notes at Newark Airport. They said my pen was a weapon, and they weren’t joking. They kept yelling at me to put the pen down, and I was taking notes, and multiple people — not just one person — “put the pen down or we will handcuff you.”
That’s a great image. The power.
I have to say, when it was happening and unfolding, I was so furious, because I kept taking my pen out and they kept yelling at me that they were going to handcuff me. But I also knew that I was going to go public. I mean, I’d never really gone public. I mentioned I’d been harassed. It’s been known; I haven’t kept it a secret. But I hadn’t really gone public, and when they were yelling at me that they were going to handcuff me for taking notes… not just taking notes, but that my pen was going to cause them harm. Like somehow I was going to stab them with my pen. I knew I was going to make it public, and I did. Actually, I called Glenn, and Glenn did a big story on it, which then led to a bunch of filmmakers writing a letter in solidarity.
As part of your secretive process, you needed to get a distributor for the film, and you had a short list of who was acceptable to you.
I have to say that this has been an extraordinary process, because we’re working with really incredible partners — all of whom have broken every rule —
Like seeing the whole film.
[Laughs] Seeing the whole film. Exactly. But it was pretty extraordinary. I had some funding going in, but we knew that we wanted to make the film really under-the-radar. We didn’t want any buzz, we didn’t want any chatter, and, when we released it, we wanted it out — we didn’t want any lag time between the premiere and distribution, which means we needed to line up our partners ahead of time. So the first two that came onboard was Diane Weyermann and Participant. Diane is a dear friend who I’ve known for years, and she helped to fund My Country, My Country, which was at Sundance, then she went to Participant. We always felt my type of filmmaking maybe wasn’t a match, but we’d always loved the idea of working together.
She made visit to Berlin and said, “Participant can do this film. Let’s do it. It’s about journalism. It’s vital, and we’d love to support it.” Then she went back to Participant and basically said, “Here’s a film. You’re not going to see any footage, you’re not going to see a treatment, I’m going to Berlin. Nothing’s going to come here. Trust me.” Then they created a codename for it, so they didn’t even talk about my name or the title. I think they called it “Everest,” which is for the snow connection — “Snowden.” I think Diane knew me well enough. She had seen footage, so she was based on that. Then we talked to distributors, and there were some people in town for the Berlin Film Festival. Then Tom Quinn said, “I want to do this film.”
It sounds like your list of accepted possibilities was not anybody who was corporate — one of the big, conglomerate players who are studio-owned.
Diane and I knew each other. But Participant took a risk. Everybody has taken a risk on this film. Not quite knowing what it was going to be, knowing it was going to be sensitive, it was going to anger the government. They really took risks. The Berlin Film Festival, we took a meeting with Tom [Quinn of Radius]: “I have to tell you we want this film. We really want this film.” Then we showed him footage. I got those assurances, and he was great. The plan was, “We’ll show you things, but we’re going to have to fly to Berlin to see them.” So they were like, “Okay… we’ll do that.”
Then, later, when we actually showed it to the programmers at New York, we took them to another screening space. Everything was encrypted. We had encrypted drives, and we showed them a cut that had redacted scenes. Those were some of the things we weren’t ready to reveal, which are some of the things that happened at the end of the film. The New York Film Festival saw a redacted ending, as did our distributors. No one knew what the end of the film was.
So the ending: it’s both cinematic and dramatic. You’re withholding information, and you’re breaking news. You were breaking news when that first showed in New York, correct?
Yeah. I made the film with an extraordinary editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy. She cut “Run Lola Run,” and other films with Tom Tykwer, and also non-fiction. As we both come out of a cinema background, we wanted to have something that would play in movie theaters, not just for television, though we do have TV partners who will broadcast it, but we did want cinema. That’s why working with Tom and Radius was really important to us. But we wanted to make a film that wasn’t just about breaking news, but was going to play in a year, five years, ten years. It has to have longevity. So there is news at the end of the film, but there are these dynamics where it doesn’t matter what’s on the pieces of paper, in a way, because it’s about the dynamic of Snowden, Glenn, and myself in that moment. Realizing things are continuing.
That the story lives on.
That the story lives on. That other people are willing to take great risks, and that Glenn has returned to analog. It’s the right end to the film — not just because it breaks news, but how it both says this is not over and how we’ve all changed in the course of a year.
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange played a role in all of this. How much did you shoot him and how much didn’t you use?
I started shooting around these themes in 2011, and I’d filmed quite a bit with both Julian and other NSA whistleblowers. We learned, in the editing room, that I’d shot two films. There’s another film to be made, focusing on Julian. This was the aftermath.
Because he was not necessarily entirely helpful in the end, with getting Snowden to Russia. He went public with it.
Julian and Sarah Harrison deserve enormous credit for taking the risks to help Snowden get out of Hong Kong. I think once the charges were filed and extradition orders placed, it wasn’t a safe place for him to be. He and Sarah Harrison took enormous risks to help him seek political asylum. Sarah, right now, doesn’t feel she can return to the U.K. They deserve acknowledgement for that. I think what happened is that they applied in many countries. I don’t think the intention, ever, was that he would stay in Russia, but that’s what happened.
It was news that we got to see his girlfriend in Russia, too. You filmed outside the house, but not in it?
That was news. I learned that she had moved there, and I thought that was important for the film, given what we learned in Hong Kong when you see the repercussions start to unfold as she discovers what’s happened. Then the government visits her. So I did want to put it in the film, and I approached them and they agreed. She hasn’t done any media, and I really wanted to respect her privacy. What the media did to her, I thought, was so brutal and horrible, basing it on her personal life. Being ripped apart and thrown all over the place. I did not want to invade her privacy. I think she obviously consented to me, basically revealing that she moved there to be with him, but I didn’t want to push it. And I knew, at the end of the film, that I didn’t want to open a new chapter — that what I wanted to say is, “They’re together.”
What is he doing there, as far as work is concerned?
I believe he has a fellowship now, that he can do some research. I don’t know the details, it’s to build privacy tools and use his talents. But I think he also feels, since he’s opened this conversation, that he still wants to continue to engage in it. So he’s doing some press. [Read Poitras in The New Yorker here, Snowden in Wired here.]