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Inside Laura Poitras’ Plan to Shake Up Documentary Storytelling

The "Citizenfour" director and her Field of Vision co-founders are making an aggressive push to reach more audiences with original nonfiction stories.

Laura Poitras

Field of Vision

Laura Poitras isn’t waiting for traditional media to tell the stories that will change the world. One year after co-founding Field of Vision, the visual journalism unit of First Look Media, Poitras and co-founders AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook are doubling down on their efforts to commission original works of nonfiction that address global events.

READ MORE: Field of Vision Launches New Website and New Slate of Short-Form Documentaries

While Poitras will be leaving The Intercept, the journalism outfit co-founded by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, to focus on expanding Field of Vision, her day-to-day work of commissioning films and short form work will not change, and the two organizations will continue their collaboration on nonfiction storytelling. Field of Vision commissioned 22 nonfiction shorts, three episodic series and two feature-length documentaries in its first year, but Poitras and her team are working to expand their collaborations with filmmakers, reporters and newsrooms to support the creation of even more original content in its second year. One of the first steps was Field Of Vision’s launch of a new website earlier this week, the centerpiece of which is SecureDrop, an online platform where individuals can anonymously leak newsworthy images and videos.

“I think we’re the first news organization that has said we really want to focus on images,” Poitras told IndieWire in an interview this week. “There is a way that images can shake a consciousness around issues, and I think we’ve seen that in terms of the police shootings of unarmed civilians or if we go back to the Abu Ghraib photographs. Without those visual documents, we wouldn’t be having those conversations about abuses of power.”

On top of gathering more visual documents and telling more stories in year two, Field of Vision will work with international distribution platforms to reach more viewers around the world. “Getting to a bigger audience is what drives us,” said Cook. “We’re really just focusing on how we get these stories out to as many people as possible.”

READ MORE: Laura Poitras Has a New Way to Explore American Surveillance

Another way Poitras wants to ramp up the group’s information gathering efforts is by being more aggressive with Freedom of Information Act requests around video footage of abuses of power. All three co-founders believe that shining a brighter light on stories depicting abuses of power around the world will help affect more change.

Field of Vision kicked off its fall season with a collaboration between Schnack and The New Yorker on an updated version of the 16-minute “Speaking is Difficult,” which now includes the mass shootings in Orlando and Dallas; “The Surrender,” Stephen Maing’s Emmy-nominated 33-minute short about a top level State Department intelligence analyst who went to prison under the Espionage Act; and by republishing “The Journey,” Matthew Cassel’s six-part series on Syrian refugees that originally premiered on NewYorker.com.

Next week, Field of Vision will premiere its slate of documentary films and series, beginning with Yung Chang’s “Gatekeeper,” about a a retired policeman who patrols cliffs in Japan to stop suicide jumpers; “They Took Them Alive,” about families trying to find answers in the case of 43 Mexican students who went missing two years ago, and “The Vote,” a look at the historic elections in Myanmar.

“Those three films coming out of the gate are really interesting because they’re all really stylistically different,” said Cook, adding that there is no such thing as a Field of Vision film in terms of style or approach. For Schnack, working with talented filmmakers from around the world to tell international stories is key to Field of Vision’s mission. “We tell stories that take place in America as well, but the ability to work with the global documentary community to tell stories that are taking place everywhere is exactly what we wanted to do when we [started out].”

READ MORE: How Field Of Vision’s Quick Production Turnaround Is Changing The Way Documentaries Are Made And Seen

Equally important is capturing these stories in collaboration with the local individuals on the ground that can provide the appropriate context for each situation. “What we’re seeing is sort of the age of citizen journalists who are also informing the public,” Poitras said. “Citizen journalists are telling us what’s driving mainstream media around a lot of stories, and it’s super inspiring for us as documentary filmmakers.”

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