In “Citizenfour,” documentarian Laura Poitras chronicles the Edward Snowden story from the inside out: Poitras was secretly contacted by the former NSA contractor in 2012 and met him in Hong Kong. Along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, she played a key role in announcing his revelations about the U.S. government’s surveillance techniques to the world. Poitras’ movie unfolds like a real-time thriller, tracking Snowden’s anxieties on the brink of his global celebrity, as well as the aftermath. Now living with his girlfriend with a one-year work permit in Russia, Snowden remains an object of media scrutiny, but the story surrounding the materials he leaked to the public has grown much bigger than him. Poitras’ movie tracks every beat of these historical events with a mixture of shock and excitement that has garnered rave reviews.
A few days after the movie’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, the director sat down with Indiewire to discuss the challenges of developing her project in secret and developing a narrative that reflected her experiences. Stay tuned for the second half of our interview tomorrow, in which Poitras addresses the ramifications of Snowden’s decision.
This movie makes you scared to record a conversation. But here we are.
It’s actually funny, because literally every journalist has been like, “Do you mind if I turn this on?” Like it’s not a given. That’s why we’re here! It’s cool. Don’t worry about it.
But did this project make you more paranoid about surveillance methods?
I don’t call it that. I don’t think being careful is being paranoid. I have good reason to believe my phone prints might be targeted. So I don’t carry it with me in the editing room. That just seems like common sense, not paranoia.
Certainly it makes sense when we see Snowden worrying about surveillance while hiding away in this Hong Kong hotel room. But it’s harder to imagine what that actually feels like.
The truth is that — in his particular case, or in my case, or in Glenn Greenwald’s case — we are talking about the NSA. They do, as we know from the reporting, have the capacity to look at our stuff right now. The fact that I’m living outside of the country right now gives me protection. So I’m aware of that. It’s just common sense.
As the movie begins, you receive encrypted communication from Snowden. When did you know that this was a movie — and more specifically, that you would be a character in it, unlike your previous films?
Once I started getting these anonymous e-mails that are at the beginning of the film, I knew it would find its way into being a film. It was just because I was so pulled in that it was obvious. And yet it’s weird that I’ve been looped into the story in some way. But it’s also sort of fallout: I made the film in Iraq [“My Country, My Country”] and then I got put on a watch list, and being put on the watch list meant that I had to be careful of source protection. Therefore I learned encryption so I could talk to Snowden and therefore I had to participate in the movie. So there are these kind of feedback loops. I went from being somebody who was documenting a situation and a political context to being pulled into it.
What were some of the practical challenges of developing the production in secret? Documentary filmmakers often complain about writing grant proposals, but this is a whole new level…
Yeah. Once I came out of Hong Kong, we were looking for who we wanted to partner with — myself, my editor and producer Mathilda Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky — and we were really feeling like we wanted the film to have a theatrical life, but we didn’t want a lag time between premiere and release. I was already working on a film about surveillance — I had been filming with [former NSA staffer] William Binney for a while, so I was already on this path and wanted to be really under the radar. That means putting very little on paper and making people come to Berlin for meetings, stuff like that. We set up a bunch of meetings during the Berlin International Film Festival in February, including one with Tom Quinn at Radius-TWC. They just said, “We really want to do this film.” So they got involved and said, “Shouldn’t we announce this?” and I was like, “No. I want to keep it under the radar as long as we can and announce it when everything is in place.”
So that’s what we were able to do, but it wasn’t easy. Participant Media’s Diane Weyermann got involved. I’d known her for years. We’ve always wanted to work together. She said, “OK, let’s do this one,” but then had to tell her bosses, “We’re doing this film, but there’s not going to be a treatment or a rough cut. You’re just going to have to trust us — me, Laura and the filmmaking team that we’ll deliver.” So she made a couple visits over to Berlin to see the cut. Radius came over. We did a screening with the New York Film Festival over the summer with some redacted portions. Anyway, it was definitely an unusual way to work but for source protection reasons we felt it was important.
The film brings a whole new context to the extensive video interview with Snowden that was published when he revealed his identity. You started recording him minutes after you’d met. But what are some details from these encounters that we don’t see in the film?
I mean, we filmed a lot. There are many, many hours from Hong Kong and we had to make choices. We couldn’t show them all. That’s just the nature of filmmaking. Glenn does this initial lengthy first-day interview where he goes into [Snowden’s] whole backstory — working at the CIA, etc. It’s extraordinary, jaw-dropping, but with the structure of the film — we’re in Hong Kong for 50 or 60 minutes of the film, and we needed to move through the days. We knew that we weren’t going to cross-cut. We’d made this decision that each day we’d only show what was happening, because we wanted to show the progression from this initial meeting, to publishing, to the impact on Ed’s family and his girlfriend when [the government] knocks on her door. So we wanted to remain true to that sequence of events, in terms of how we built the Hong Kong section. That interview with Glenn from the first day was awesome, but we weren’t going to cut it in later.
In terms of the film’s structure: Were you anticipating chapters of the film’s story before it happened? The film proceeds almost like a scripted narrative. You must have known, for example, that once Glenn published the first story you would be dealing with a global event. How did you strategize around that?
Narrative grows out of human experience. It’s drama, it’s conflict…it was very clear to me that I was in the middle of following a story that would have large implications. So I tried to document as much as I could, including the reverberations. So immediately after Hong Kong I went to the Guardian to film with Glenn. I wanted to get that sort of global scope. We thought of Hong Kong as this kind of core — and then the reverberations would push out beyond it. They’re ongoing. They push outside of the film. It doesn’t have narrative closure. Things are continuing to emerge and unfold. It puts something in motion.
The tone of the movie is very unpredictable. Sometimes it feels like a thriller, but there are also surprising moments of levity. How did you modulate that?
My editor, Mathilda Bonnefoy, is really extraordinary at rhythm and tone, particularly the rhythm of the days and how they build. For me, the experience of being there all those days was really tense. I really felt like the whole experience was like being in a free fall. We were all in free fall and just felt like, “OK, we’ve taken a risk, but we’ve got some skills, and we trust each other. Let’s hope that whatever the landing is won’t be too painful.” But it was uncertain. There were serious threats against Snowden as well as the journalism. What happened to David Miranda [Greenwald’s partner, who detained for several hours while traveling] is really scary stuff. Those initial months after Hong Kong, the government was really looking for ways to shut us down.
There are all these conversations in the documentary community about the relationship between filmmaker and subject — whether or not there’s such a thing as being “too close.” Did you ever feel protective of Snowden?
As a journalist, I felt that I still had some obligations to confidentiality. There are some things I’m not going to disclose, even though he came forward. If I’m ever called before a grand jury, I’m not going to testify. I’m still bound by source protection. It was clear that this was going to be a film told from a subjective point of view, and that I’m one of the protagonists in the narrative. Other than that, I’ve always made films that stay close to the protagonists. They’re the ones that take us through the narrative.
It must have helped that Snowden was so eloquent at explaining his rationale.
Yeah, to me, it’s a document of journalism happening. I mean, here he is — he’s risked everything to disclose this information, and he wants to communicate to these journalists who don’t understand all these technical details. There’s a clock ticking because he’s left the country and the government knows he’s missing. Using the verite approach leaves it open. People can decide for themselves whether or not they agree or disagree with what he did, but I think it’s pretty hard to question that he did it because of a set of beliefs, and that he wasn’t some agent or operative for another country, which has been the narrative that the government’s been wanting to spin. It just doesn’t reconcile with what you see.
So how do you feel about what he did?
I think that he put his life on the line to expose information that was of vital public interest. I agree with it.
Stay tuned for the second half of our interview with Laura Poitras tomorrow.