Laura Poitras on the Making of 'Citizenfour'
In January 2013, Laura Poitras was working on a film about surveillance, the third and final film in a trilogy propelled by the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terror, when she was anonymously contacted by a whistleblower. This person, who went by the name "Citizenfour," wanted to get the word out about the NSA's surveillance programs aimed at private citizens who were in no way suspected of any link to terrorism or of any misconduct, transgression or crime.
Poitras was Citizenfour's conduit. The 2013 recipient of the IDA's Courage Under Fire Award, which honors a filmmaker of "conspicuous bravery in the pursuit of truth," Poitras had already made My Country, My Country (2006), which follows the national elections in US-occupied Iraq, focusing on one candidate, a Sunni doctor; and The Oath (2010), which weaves together the stories of a Yemen-based cab driver who was Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard, and his brother-in-law, a prisoner incarcerated in Guantánamo. After being placed on a US watch list, Poitras moved from New York to Berlin so she could continue working on her film without the watchful eye of the US government.
When Citizenfour began sending Poitras emails containing details of the NSA's massive spying programs, she knew they were very rich documents; not only were they staggering in the breadth of what they described, but as a testament to the enormous risks someone was taking with his own life to communicate this information. Early on, Poitras had a sense this email communication would find its way into a film—or another type of artwork—in some fashion. Needless to say, it was a game changer (or, more appropo, a "film changer") when Snowden agreed to go public.
Documentary caught up with Poitras to discuss documentary filmmaking, journalism and the making of Citizenfour.
DOCUMENTARY: You were the first person to learn about Snowden's massive collection of files. Talk about these extraordinary circumstances and why Snowden contacted you.
Laura Poitras: It's unusual that a source would approach a documentary filmmaker. As to the question "Why me?" I think it was a combination of many things. He [Snowden] had seen a short film that I had done for The New York Times about William Binney, an NSA whistleblower, so he knew I was a filmmaker who was working on the topics at hand. I had also published a short essay in the Times about being on a watch list, where I talked about the implications of that.
Also, it has been reported that he [Snowden] had tried to make contact with [journalist] Glenn Greenwald but they weren't able to set up encryption. When it didn't work with Glenn, Snowden reached out to me because he knew that I cared about the topic, so that's kind of how I entered into being his contact.
NSA headquarters. Photo: Trevor Paglen. Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
So you are contacted by Snowden, and you correspond with him. How did you ensure that communication was safe and secure?
As soon as I thought the source was legit, which was probably February 2013, I started using another computer, separate email addresses and only checking that email from locations that were away from my home because I wanted to maintain source protection. Some of the emails I received were so heavy both in terms of the scope of what they were describing and the risks the person was taking and the danger I knew the reporting would involve. I was very aware that we were going to anger a lot of people if and when the material came forward. I would get these emails and I would have to just stop and lie down so I could process them because they were so intense.
You were working on a film about surveillance and then you were contacted anonymously—through encrypted email—by Snowden. Talk about the evolution of this film, before and after Snowden got involved.
I began shooting for this film in 2011. I was interested in issues with surveillance, journalism, the work that WikiLeaks was doing and the impact that had on journalism and whistleblowers—all those kinds of themes. My films usually start with some sort of general interest and then I try to figure out where I can film or where I can get access. This was in 2011 and at that stage I was really interested in Glenn's writing. I was really struck by the fact that here was somebody doing very vital work so outside of the mainstream—sort of outsider journalism. I thought it was something new, something that was born of the Internet, so I actually made a trip down to Rio de Janeiro to film him. That was the very first shoot of this film, and it's actually the beginning of the completed film. After the title you see Glenn Greenwald in Rio reporting for Salon.com. It was always this really beautiful footage of a guy sitting on his porch. I loved the footage, but I never thought it would find its way into any film.
Two years later I'm contacted by Snowden and we established communication. Snowden encouraged me to contact Glenn Greenwald to work on the story with him, and so Glenn comes back into the film.
Isn't that part of the process—and the delight—of documentary filmmaking?
Yes. In my filmmaking there's a way in which fate comes into things. There's not always a clear certainty. I follow paths not quite knowing where they'll lead or where the story will take me. That's essentially the nature of vérité filmmaking. You're witnessing things happening in real time and you don't know what the conclusion will be. That is the kind of filmmaking I've been doing for years and I'm really drawn to it because it allows one to capture human drama and conflict—happening in real time—and structure a narrative around it in a cinematic way.
But then you learned the identity of Citizenfour to be Ed Snowden. How did this unfold?
There was a turning point in April  where things shifted. We were corresponding and I thought that the source would never identify themselves, that they'd remain anonymous and someday I would get evidence, but I would never know who they were. And then I was told otherwise. He said that, in fact, he would claim responsibility and that he didn't want others to take the fall. He was concerned that there would be a massive leak investigation and that it would unravel the lives of many people, which he didn't want to happen. He told me that he would take responsibility and that his identity would be revealed.
How did this revelation change things?
That's when I requested the chance to meet him and film him so that I could record his motivation. It was very important for me to understand his motivation, and I thought it was important for the world to understand his motivation. Initially Snowden said he didn't want to do that because he didn't want the story to be about him, and then I convinced him of the importance for him to be able to articulate his story—that people were going to speculate if he didn't, so it was important that he do it. This is how the meeting in Hong Kong materialized.
Edward Snowden (left) and Glenn Greenwald, in Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room. Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
So you unwittingly became a part of the story. How did you figure out just how much of yourself to put in this film? We hear your voice but we never see images of you. Was that a personal or aesthetic choice?
It was clear that the film would be told from a subjective point of view, that I would tell it in first person. I chose to be the narrator, so I am the person who takes the audience on this journey and introduces the audience to all the people in the film.
In terms of choice, it partly has to do with the fact that I do my own filming. In many cases I am behind the camera. Sometimes I work with a camera person, but the majority of the time I'm working in the field alone. I didn't want the film to be a personal essay. We did some edits where there was more of me in it and then it felt like a personal essay and it lost a bit of the rich, layered structure of using scenes shot vérité to build the narrative.
I'm really interested in pulling people into a story using scenes as the building blocks to tell the narrative. Many of the cards are told in first person: you hear my voice and you do see me in reflections. It is clear there is somebody behind the camera who is a participant in what's unfolding.
Can you talk a bit more about the editing? How did you go about finding the structure of the film?
This film was edited by Mathilde Bonnefoy, an extraordinary editor and filmmaker [who edited Tom Tykwer's 1999 feature Run Lola Run]. We were collaborators on structuring the film. We ultimately realized in the edit room that I had shot two films. There was the film that I shot before January 2013, and then there's the film that started when Snowden entered into dialogue with me.
In terms of how to approach the structure, we knew that Hong Kong was going to be the heart of the film. Once we had set that up, then it determined what would come before and what would come after.
We wanted Hong Kong to be this quiet space out of which emerges these shockwaves. But we wanted to set a context and lay the groundwork of how the government has responded to previous whistleblowers, and how the government has tried to use the legal system to keep secrecy and all that kind of stuff.
This is why we meet another whistleblower, Bill Binney, and show what happened to him. In Binney's case, here's someone who came forward and was put under investigation by the FBI after he blew the whistle.
We wanted to stay close to the characters—Snowden, Glenn and myself—and not try to tell the whole story of all the leaks or all the stories that emerged from Snowden.
The film ends on a very lyrical, cinematic note, yet you are conveying some shocking and revelatory information that will leave audiences wanting more. Why is that?
I very much didn't want to end on a note of closure. We wanted to say that the risks to sources are ongoing, the risks to journalists are ongoing. These surveillance programs have not been shut down. I very much wanted to push outside of the frame so that the ending doesn't feel neat and tidy.
Citizenfour is the last film in a trilogy. Can you talk about the progression of these three films?
When I began My Country, My Country, about the Iraq War and the occupation of Iraq, I wasn't thinking it was going to be part of a larger body of work. I just felt really compelled to understand this war and its human consequences. While I was editing that film, Guantánamo was still open and I felt it was really shocking that we have a prison where people are being held for a decade and they've never been charged. I decided I was going to do my next project on Guantánamo [The Oath, 2010]. At that point I realized this was going to be a trilogy. It was clear to me that I wanted the last chapter to return home to look at the impact of the war on terror on the US soil.
We know that days after 9/11, the NSA brought in a bunch of servers so they could spy domestically in response to the attacks. Surveillance is a complicated subject to tackle; not many people talk about it and it's hard to visualize. Once Snowden became known and appeared in the film, it became quite easy, but before that it was hard to see and hard to communicate.
Considering the circumstances in which you made Citizenfour—as an American citizen in exile, having been harassed and intimidated by your own government—talk about some of the challenges, and insights.
I think each of the films stand alone, but with this last one there's a feedback loop— weird, unintended consequences and chain of events—because I was put on a watch list after the Iraq film. What the government did actually prepared me to make this film (Citizenfour) because I am really good at encryption and protecting source material. In a weird way I've been sucked into the history that I'm trying to document in ways that I never would have expected.
How did the overarching theme of the trilogy change in making Citizenfour?
When I began making My Country, My Country, I was much more naive about the direction the country was going. I was hoping they would scale back. Now I believe we just keep moving into secrecy and executive power, sacrificing civil liberties and basic principles of democratic society.
[Citizenfour] ends on a bit of a dark note, but it also ends on a positive note in the sense that information is coming forward. People are taking enormous risks to get the information to the public, so the public can decide on these issues; we can't rely on our leaders to tell us what the government is doing.
You are a documentary filmmaker, but in these circumstances you are also working as a journalist. How do you distinguish journalism and documentary filmmaking—and how do you work in these two mediums?
I do believe that documentary filmmaking is journalism. But it was a very unusual circumstance to be contacted by a source basically saying, "I have evidence and documentation of government lying and massive government spying on Americans."
When I was in Hong Kong, I was very determined that I was there as a documentarian. I wanted to film this encounter. I wasn't there to go into the documents or publish. I wanted to film Glenn Greenwald and [journalist] Ewen MacAskill meeting with Snowden and going through the documents. That's what my focus was when I was there—and also releasing the video that we ended up doing. When I went back to Berlin, I was like, "OK, I really have an obligation to make sure that this material is reported," and I put some of the filmmaking aside and focused on more of the print journalism. I do feel like at certain moments, I've put on different hats.
Any last thoughts you'd like to add?
It's interesting to compare what it is like to work in the documentary community versus the print news community. In the doc community, I feel there's a kind of support for the work that we do. Yes, sometimes two filmmakers will be working on the same story and they're not going to be as forthcoming about what they're doing. But in general, there's this feeling of mutual support and generosity in the documentary community that I really value and have been longing for.
Citizenfour is currently screening in theaters through RADiUS-TWC.
Laura Almo is a Los Angeles-based journalist, documentary filmmaker and assistant professor of Film at El Camino College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.