The revelation of the National Security Administration’s surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phone records was among the biggest news stories of 2013, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the journalists at the Washington Post and The Guardian who covered it.
One of those journalists, Laura Poitras, has just released her documentary about the events surrounding the NSA revelations — and the contractor who leaked them to her. Citizenfour takes its title from the handle Edward Snowden used to communicate online with Poitras, communications Poitras reads aloud. The film leads to Hong Kong, where Poitras and two other journalists powwow with a vaguely shocked yet clear-headed Snowden, who’s decided to walk away from his life entirely; the degree of risk he’s undertaken is underlined more strongly by Citizenfour than in any other reporting to date.
Poitras has had a long career of documenting national security initiatives and their implications in documentary form; her last film, The Oath, dealt in part with a Yemeni man held in Guantánamo Bay. But Citizenfour is a uniquely gripping work for how it gets inside one of the biggest news stories of our time. Laura Poitras spoke to TIME this week.
TIME: Was it difficult to make a film that objectively depicted the events surrounding Snowden’s disclosures, given how enmeshed you were in the process? How did your roles as filmmaker and as journalist run up against one another?
Laura Poitras: I mean, in the process of working on this film, when I was in Hong Kong, I was wearing my documentary filmmaker hat — saying, ‘I am going to document what’s happening.’ This moment in journalism when I’m meeting a source for the first time, understanding who this person is — it’s a moment you usually never get to see. Usually a source doesn’t want to be identified or will come forward four decades later, like with Deep Throat. I knew this’d be something different. As we were sitting up and working on stories, I was the documentary fillmmmaker.
When I returned to Berlin, I realized it was important I report it out. I think a lot of people, there are a lot of really talented national security reporters who can do great work on documents in the public interest. Doing this was what I wanted to do — making a longform film that looked at the story from many angles — asking what it says about journalism, whistleblowers, and the government coming down on both in the context of post-9/11 America. I’m more interested in those broader issues than I am in breaking news.
It strikes me as difficult to release a documentary after the fact about a major news event that’s been widely covered, including by Glenn Greenwald, who’s a character in the film.
In the editing room, we realized a couple of things quickly. One was that I was a part of the story and it needed to be told from a subjective point of view. I was the narrator. I was a participant as much as a documentarian. Then we tell the story close to the protagonists. Snowden, Glenn, and [U.S. intelligence official-turned-whistleblower] William Binney. It’s through them we get a picture of the wider importance. We had more footage, more archival stuff. Then it becomes a chronicle of the leaks, which is interesting when it’s happening but not interesting in retrospect. There was a film about the Obama campaign – that was interesting when it was happening, but in retrospect…
We tried to make sure it was not caught up in breaking news but to say something that would still resonate in five and ten years. It’s a broader human story. Yes, it’s about the NSA, but it’s also about what would cause a person to risk everything.
What’s the process of coordinating coverage between multiple journalists? The film depicts Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, both at that time of The Guardian, working together on the story, and they seemed to have different areas of interest. And you were working independently.
Glenn and Euan were both working for The Guardian. Glenn did the first story about Verizon and they worked together on the other stories. I came at it not attached to print journalism as much as I am to visual journalism. I didn’t have any need to break any particular stories but in documenting what I thought was an important journalistic encounter. For instance, if The Guardian had sent over another video camera I would have kicked them out and said “This is a source I’ve been working on.” In terms of working on the documents, it clearly required many people. It required a journalistic and editorial process. No one journalist was going to be able to report on this alone.
Do you feel Citizenfour presents an “unbiased” view of Snowden? Was that even your aim?
I guess I would say it’s told from a subjective point of view, which also doesn’t mean it’s not still journalism. There’s a lot of reporting where you read the word “I.” I don’t think because it’s a subjective telling of events, it ceases to be journalism. It is still journalism. But it’s clear that the person who’s narrating through the story is a participant. Have you read All the President’s Men recently? They use “Carl” and “Bob,” and they say “I.” This is not the first time a piece of nonfiction has been told from the point-of-view of the author.
Do you think getting access to potential sources, for you, has gotten easier since the events surrounding Snowden? The whole ordeal certainly raised your profile.
I think one of the messages of the film is that this is one of the most difficult times to do journalism. The government is coming down on whistleblowers and journalists. William Binney is in the film for that reason — he goes through the system and does it right, and the FBI raids his house because they think he’s the source for a New York Times story about wireless wiretapping. Journalism is under duress because of how the government can investigate who we’re talking to by our phone records.
It’s too soon to say, I used to be much more under the radar. My last film [The Oath] was filmed in Yemen, and I didn’t register as a journalist. I didn’t need a minder. Those days are behind me. But it’s too soon to say what the impact will be. No one from the U.S. government has contacted me, but I have heard things. In Germany, I’ve heard things. People are monitoring what I’m doing, and I guess that’s to be expected. I’m not sure what it means in terms of future reporting – this was a departure for me! I usually do longform visual journalism. I’ll keep making movies.
Was it difficult for you to shoot and then to assemble the film, given the degree to which the situation was constantly changing?
When I was working on the film I made about the Iraq occupation [My Country, My Country], the story was still changing constantly. The ethnic violence began while I was in the cutting room. A film changes with contemporary events. You have to pay attention to things but also block them out. A longform documentary has to withstand time, it can’t be too reactive to current events. I certainly felt I wasn’t going to rush the film for anyone — once it was done, it was clear I wanted to get it released. I didn’t want it to premiere and not have a distributor. We didn’t want a lag time, because I do feel the issues are important.
You’re in the U.S. at the moment, though you made Citizenfour in Germany to ensure a lack of government interference.
I edited the film in Berlin, and I went there before being contacted by Edward Snowden. I set up shop there because I was concerned about the film being taken at the border. Now that the film is done, I feel I have options. I feel I have incredible connections to Berlin. The woman who edited Citizenfour, I’d love to work with her again. But I still consider myself a New Yorker and I still have friends I’d like to see here. It’s all very new; we were editing until recently. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable editing this film in the U.S. The raw footage of the subpoenas felt real. It still feels real.