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New Day Films Writes Department of Homeland Security on Behalf of Filmmaker Laura Poitras

By KJ Relth

Debra Chasnoff, Chair for the filmmakers of New Day Films, has written a letter to Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on behalf of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who was detained most recently at Newark International Airport on April 5, 2012. Ms. Poitras, an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, has left the US 40+ times over the past 6 years to film and work in places such as Iraq and Yemen. Almost every time she has attempted to come back home to the U.S., she has been detained and interrogated at length about her activities overseas by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Items such as her pens and notepads have been confiscated; some of her equipment has been seized and not returned for weeks.

These actions are making Poitras's job all the more difficult as CBP and DHS agents suspect her of crimes she has never committed. It is for this reason that Chasnoff and the 150+ filmmakers and members who comprise New Day Films ask the following questions of Ms. Napolitano and the DHS:

  1. Are pens among the "terrorist weapons" that concern you? Ms. Poitras was told by multiple CBP agents that she was prohibited from taking notes, on the grounds that her pen could be used as a weapon.
  2. Is taking notes really prohibited at the border? CBP agent Wassum threatened to handcuff Ms. Poitras if she continued taking notes at this detainment. (Ms. Poitras had been advised by her attorney to do so, after facing repeated border detainments whenever she re-entered the United States from travel abroad.)
  3. If the answers to these questions is no, has the CBP taken any disciplinary action against CBP agents Wassum and Lopez? (CBP Chief Deputy Lopez also told Ms. Poitras that she was prohibited from taking notes, and accused her of "refusing to cooperate with an investigation;" the CBP later "clarified" that there was no "investigation," only "questioning.")
  4. Can you clarify any DHS or CBP policy vis-à-vis Ms. Poitras, and/or explain why she is being singled out for such scrutiny?

Along with reading the letter from New Day Films, you can learn more from a article that looks at the issues controversial filmmakers must face—and the shortcuts and workarounds they must take—in this post-911 world.