It’s been less than a year since “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s unflinching look at Edward Snowden’s final days before blowing the whistle on NSA surveillance, premiered at the New York Film Festival and then won the Best Documentary Oscar. The journalist turned filmmaker, now up for four Primetime Emmys, still has work to do.
“I haven’t had a lot of down time, I can tell you that,” Poitras, who likes to keep her whereabouts a mystery, said over the phone. She’s busily attending to a massive Whitney exhibit slated for February, and she’s still fighting six years of harassment by the US government.
More than 50 times over six years, in fact, she underwent repeated searches and interrogations at the border and in foreign airports. Having not heard back on her 2013 request to obtain documents that explain her repeated targeting, Poitras is fighting back. She’s suing the U.S. government in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the
Homeland Security and Justice departments, and the Office of the Director
of National Intelligence.
“My case was so high profile, I knew I could leverage that
to learn how the system works for people who are less high profile,” Poitras said.
But it’s not like she has done anything to alert their attention. “This is something the government has to answer. The government has
stopped me for six years and has never directly
asked me the question. The burden is on them.”
She described the experience as “Kafkaesque” and while the direct searching and interrogation ceased in 2012, from “what I’ve observed on the border,” though she can’t confirm, it isn’t over. She believes she’s on a silent hit list, which is basically when airport officials “don’t fuck with you, but they fuck with you. They flag me when I come and go, they just don’t stop and detain me and question me,” she said.
There are silent hit “indicators,” per the US government’s Terror Watchlist standard. “This is only speculation, but there are double and triple takes and when
I hand over my passport, when I’m asked ‘What do you do for a living?'”
This leads Poitras, who is often crossing the border with footage and reporter’s notebooks, to think she is still being flagged.
But she’s no stranger to the Kafkaesque life. Making “Citizenfour” involved “a huge amount of risk.” There were elected politicians threatening to indict Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who brought Snowden to Poitras in 2013 and with whom she co-founded online news platform The Intercept. “Everybody risked being surveilled by governments in the US, Germany and other places, so to be able to
release it means these risks are worth taking and that it’s important
to take risks. There was a lot on the line and the risks were real, so
these acknowledgements provide protection.”
After “Citizenfour,” now she’s turning her focus to Julian Assange in her upcoming New York Film Festival premiere, a collection of short works titled “Field of Vision” that also
includes a preview of her series “Asylum,” a behind-the-scenes look at the controversial WikiLeaks head. Poitras follows him as he publishes classified U.S. State Department cables and eventually seeks political asylum inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
On top of the lawsuit and her NYFF premiere, the newly re-imagined Whitney Museum in New York is giving Poitras the eighth floor for a sprawling exhibit set to run February 5 through May 15, 2016.
consider myself an artist and I work in the film industry [so it has
been a question of] how to translate my ideas into an exhibit,” she said. “It’s all
new work except there will be one short work that I previously completed
and it’s going to be installation-based, so it will have a narrative
arc, but I am building different rooms and spaces with a beginning
middle and an end, with narrative drive. It’s more abstract than
long-form storytelling; it’s going to be broad but it deals with these
issues of America post-9/11, such as drones, torture, surveillance,
these themes I keep circling back to.”
Poitras is a political documentary director, but she’s still insistent on being a filmmaker foremost. “I’m a filmmaker and I love the craft of cinema, and even though I make
political cinema, if they don’t work as films I haven’t done my job. We have fantastic tools at our disposal, silence and cinematic language,
and the toolkit is so fantastic that to only use a certain very narrow
set of tools is really disappointing. Hopefully more and more filmmakers
will be taking risks. And we are seeing more.”
“Citizenfour” is now on DVD.