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NYFF: Laura Poitras Launches ‘Asylum’ and ‘Field of Vision’ Segments (VIDEO)

NYFF: Laura Poitras Launches 'Asylum' and 'Field of Vision' Segments (VIDEO)

Like a flashback from the dramatic unveiling of eventual Oscar-winner “Citizenfour” at the New York Film Festival a year ago, Laura Poitras returned to the stage Sunday night to unveil three short episodes (accompanied by music from Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails) from her work-in-progress “Asylum” (2016).

This time instead of Edward Snowden, she’s up close and personal with controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as he gets on the phone with a lawyer in Hillary Clinton’s State Department in 2010 to alert them of a massive dump of State Department documents on his site. When he hangs up the phone, he tells his co-worker the conversation was designed to entrap him for espionage. Clearly, he enjoys “rattling the cage.”

READ MORE: Laura Poitras’s Work Isn’t Finished

Poitras has great instincts as she catches telling details; Assange, assuming a disguise, has trouble inserting his colored contact lens; as he prepares to go out on the street, he checks to see if his hands are trembling. Poitras grabs a shot from the back of his motorcycle as he dodges cars at top speed.

Using the NYFF as a launchpad megaphone, Poitras also previewed five of the documentary short films commissioned for Field of Vision’s ad-free first season, which starts rolling out September 29 on Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept (first films available to stream here). She and her two partners, filmmaker AJ Schnack and producer Charlotte Cook, created this visual journalism unit in association with The Intercept; both are funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media

Showing Sunday were shorts of varying lengths from emerging young indie filmmakers. Four of the filmmakers are cinematographers who respectively shot in Macedonia, the American South, Kabul, Afghanistan, and other exotic locations.

My favorites were both directed by women: Kirsten Johnson’s elegantly framed “The Above” is a piece of visual poetry contrasting surveillance blimps in Afghanistan and the U.S. The second, “Notes on a Border,” was by Iva Radivojevic, a diminutive cinematographer who followed Syrian immigrants in Macedonia trying to cross into Greece. She went alone with an assistant and likes to be nimble with her digital camera. “I like to pretend I’m a young and innocent thing,” she said from the stage at the Walter Reade Theatre. “You just find ways, you’re small and fit into places.” Poitras reminded her that she was arrested at one point.
Field of Vision is commissioning all the filmmakers –whose costs on each film are covered–on-stage Sunday to shoot more films. One doc is definitely getting several episodes: Greenwald produced Heloisa Passos’ charming “Birdie,” set in Sao Paolo, about a homeless fruit vendor in love with his two dogs. 

Schnack and Poitras told me at a reception following the event that they get a kick out of supporting young talent. They plan to create forty to fifty original episodic and individual short-form nonfiction films each year, pairing filmmakers with developing and ongoing stories around the globe. They’re interested in connecting with partners (with help from marketing ace Ryan Werner and sales rep Submarine, which sold “Citizenfour”), from distributors to film festivals. They also want to put writers, data visualization artists, filmmakers and photojournalists together. Life Magazine was an inspiration for Field of Vision, Poitras said. 

There’s some debate as to whether her Assange doc “Asylum” will wind up as a feature or an episodic series. Or both. Field of Vision is jumping off the cliff, in effect, with a five-person staff, waiting to see what opportunities for revenue arise. Growth will come from the global multichannel world as varying time slots look to be filled with timely content.

Ten to 17 Season One films will post at the rate of one film per week on The Intercept through November. A second season will debut in early 2016. Besides Johnson, Passos and Radivojevic, the first two seasons of Field of Vision will feature new works by Michael Moore, Shola Lynch, Yung Chang, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, Beau Willimon, Dustin Guy Defa, Jarred Alterman, Jill Magid, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, and more.
Schnack, Poitras and Cook want to be more responsive than long-form feature documentary filmmaking permits, assigning quickly on the fly. A short piece like Poitras’s NSA New York Times Op-Doc presaged “Citizenfour.” That’s another model “where I was working on a long form film,” Poitras told Indiewire, “but I was telling a story that had a certain urgency, so I ended up releasing an interview with Edward Snowden before I finished the film, and there was an urgency around that because he had made the decision to come forward. So we’re completely open to all forms of visual journalism.”

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