Q&A: Poitras on capturing history in a hotel room

October 22, 2014 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — Imagine if Bob Woodward’s clandestine meetings in a Washington D.C. parking garage with Deep Throat had been documented — or, better yet, filmed by Woodward, himself.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but that’s about the closest equivalent to Laura Poitras’ one-of-a-kind documentary “Citizenfour,” which captures former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden during his leak of NSA documents to Poitras (a documentarian and reporter) and journalist Glenn Greenwald.


In strikingly intimate footage — history from a Hong Kong hotel room — “Citizenfour” documents Snowden’s first encounters with Poitras and Greenwald and their eight days together going over the NSA revelations that would lead to espionage charges against Snowden, a share in a Pulitzer Prize for the subsequent reporting by Poitras and Greenwald, and nationwide debate about post-9/11 surveillance of Americans.

Poitras spoke the morning after “Citizenfour,” which opens Friday, premiered at the New York Film Festival. After the screening, the Lincoln Center stage swelled with the movie’s filmmakers, whistleblowers like former NSA official William Binney and Snowden family members. Poitras called the crowded stage “a show of force.”

AP: What was it like in that hotel room?

Poitras: My experience was unlike any that I’ve ever filmed. I’ve worked in conflict zones and this felt more dangerous than any other place I’ve ever been. I felt the stakes were just incredibly high. I remember thinking very much that all my experiences as a filmmaker kind of went on autopilot. Emotionally, it was really hard because I really felt this person was absolutely putting their life on the line, and there was a certain burden to participate in that and witness it and not know what the outcome would be. So it felt like a bit of a freefall.

AP: Was your role at all confusing, being that you were there as a journalist, a filmmaker and an ally in a cause?

Poitras: When I was in Hong Kong, I was there as a documentary filmmaker, so I would call that visual journalism. I was there to record what I perceived to be a historic event. I wanted to be able to see somebody who’s risked everything. That doesn’t happen every day. I had different roles at different times. A lot of people could have written stories about these documents, but I felt like not a lot of people would have gotten into that hotel room.

AP: It makes for a completely unique film.


Poitras: I had a bunch of legal meetings before going and they were like, “Well, it’s a bit risky to go to Hong Kong. Just don’t document anything.” I was like, “No, no, that’s not what’s going to happen. I’m going to document everything.”

AP: What really comes across is Snowden’s level-headed conviction and his understanding of the likely ramifications for himself.

Poitras: He was totally in a Zen state. He had arrived in a state where he was going to accept whatever consequences came, so he was very calm but very intentional, like: “There are things in my brain that I want to communicate to you. You’re not going to understand them all. But write them down because the world needs to know them and I might not ever see you again.”

AP: How was it editing the film in Berlin, where you worked to be outside of U.S. jurisdiction?

Poitras: We were working in lots of encryptions. Only my editor and I know certain things. There were real risks. When I came back from Hong Kong, I had to sit everyone down and say, “If this doesn’t feel comfortable, you need to let me know, because there is a chance we get a knock on the door.” These are real potential things, that the government might try to seize the footage.

AP: A few weeks ago, you visited Snowden in Russia, where he’s living in asylum. The footage from that visit shows him living seemingly happy with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills.

Poitras: I’ve visited him in Moscow several times in the past year. When I saw him last time, I was like, “Wow, he seems good.” Having Lindsay there is really good for him. He feels less of the weight of the world on him.

AP: What did he think of the film?

Poitras: He took a lot of notes and then a lot of them were like, “So on that shot, on the table behind there, you can see a thumb drive.” He was basically looking at it from an operational security perspective. There’s a bit of an irony in it because he began our meeting by saying, “I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about the issues.” And yet I’ve made a film about him. I think he understands why I’ve done that and he’s consented to it. But I think there’s a part of him that would like to recede from the story.

AP: What kind of effect would you like “Citizenfour” to have?

Poitras: Hopefully seeing the risks that someone takes in a situation like this, maybe it provides a place or protection for people to come forward.


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