Two years after beginning a film about government whistleblowers and the larger issue of domestic American surveillance, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras received an encrypted email from an anonymous source who called him or herself Citizenfour. It was Edward Snowden, and after a series of cat-and-mouse across numerous continents, Poitras found herself in a Hong Kong hotel room filming Snowden and two print journalists over eight days, as he prepared for the first of his many leaks to date of classified information obtained whilst working as a National Security Agency contractor. The award-winning film constructed from this footage is an odds-on favorite to take the Best Documentary Academy Award later this month. In an exclusive interview, Poitras talks about the genesis of Citizenfour, breaking the fourth wall, Michael Moore, the incongruity of Oscar season and how Australian citizens can protect themselves online.
You had started filming what became Citizenfour in 2011, when you were profiling NSA official-turned whistleblower William Binney. How did that grow into what became the finished film?
It grew into it in January 2013 when I got a mysterious email from an anonymous source [Edward Snowden]. So it just morphed. All the research and the filming I had done certainly put me in a position to be able to recognise the magnitude of what was being communicated in these emails. It didn’t take me long to take it really, really seriously. And yeah, it did change. A lot of footage I shot before is not in the final film. But that’s just what happens. When you make films about things that are happening in real time, you have to be ready to pivot when something changes.
It’s interesting to see your films over the period of the last 10 or 12 years. One almost gets the impression from reading your interviews and seeing the movies that your activism and your status as a dissenter suggests you’ve self-actualised on film. It’s a document of your journey from complacency – and that’s not meant harshly – to being very much in tune with the injustices that affect us all.
I would phrase it a bit differently. Actually, [New York Times reporter] James Risen has written that through the act of covering America post 9/11, he actually got embroiled in it. And I think it’s very similar what happened to me, through the act of making this work, I became embroiled in the history that I was trying to document. But I don’t consider myself an activist, that’s actually not a word I use to describe myself. A visual journalist and as a filmmaker, yes, but I don’t approach it as activism. I’m trying to make films in which I’m able to express what I think about the world and things that are based on events that are happening. That’s different than activism. Activism is “there’s something we want to protest and what should we do? Should we have a march, should we do a petition or whatever?” That’s not why I make films.
On your website, The Intercept, there’s an article called “Ed Snowden Taught Me How to Smuggle Secrets Past Incredible Danger. Now I Teach You” by Micah Lee, that answers a lot of questions about Citizenfour that have to do with the technology that you, Glenn Greenwald and Snowden utilised to be able to speak to each other securely and arrange be in that Hong Kong hotel room, how the practical technology of encryption allowed you all to link together.
Yeah, that’s a great piece, and Mikah was essential in providing expertise and guidance as we were working on the story.
One of the subplots in Citizenfour is how investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald had a challenging learning curve implementing email and phone encryption to get to the point where he could communicate with the rest of you. Does that kind of tech come naturally to you or did you have to sit down and puzzle it all out as well?
I mean, I had a learning curve, but I also had some incentives because of the fact I was put on a watch list, I was stopped every time I traveled. So in order to protect my footage while I entered the United States, I had to learn encryption. It became a necessity, and I think people who have been targeted in that way can figure it out pretty quickly. If you know you’re facing real risks, then you figure out what you need to figure out to combat those risks. And so I had to learn technology, because I was being harassed every time I returned to the US, had my computer confiscated and stuff. So I needed these tools. I am pretty technical, as a filmmaker I also do my own camera and I edit and I do my own sound. Which is different than knowing how to code, I don’t know how. I mean, that’s a totally different world. What Snowden knows, or what someone like [computer security researcher and hacker] Jacob Applebaum, who’s in the film, what they know makes them real experts in technology and how the internet works. I just know how to use the tools I need to do my job.
"I don’t consider myself an activist, that’s actually not a word I use to describe myself. A visual journalist and as a filmmaker, yes, but I don’t approach it as activism. "
You’re very articulate when you talk about the tension in your filmmaking between injecting yourself in the story and having to make certain editorial choices about that, which of course all non-fiction filmmakers do.
If you look at [my 9/11 trilogy], I can describe it so that maybe it’ll help to understand. The film I made about the Iraq War [My Country, My Country (2006)], I was in Baghdad for eight months and I filmed over 200 hours, filming different people. When I edited the film, I very much didn’t want myself to be a presence in the film, because I wanted people to care about the Iraqi family because I felt there was too little empathy for Iraqis and too much empathy for Americans and American journalists. So I didn’t want it to be about the risks that I was in while I was in Baghdad. I wanted people to care, I wanted an empathetic caste to that.
The film I made after that about Guantanamo and the war on terror and Al Qaeda [The Oath (2010)], that one I did insert myself more in the film because the film calls for it, in a different way. You know about the fourth wall, you break the fourth wall when you draw attention to the filmmaking, or do it in the theatre? We realized we needed to break the fourth wall because the audience was so fascinated with the level of access and how to take a camera into those situations. So we broke the fourth wall so we could answer some questions about that.
And in the case of Citizenfour, it was a totally different ball game. You know, Snowden emailed me, I got pulled into the narrative directly. So it was, then, essential that there be a subjective voice in the film and it’s clear I’m a participant. I’m interested in making stories that have really a dramatic engine to them, and for me that’s about spending time with people and going on a journey and building scenes. And if I keep inserting myself every other second, that narrative magic gets a bit disrupted. In the editing room we just had to find the balance of how I should be in the story and where and when. In the footage I shot in Hong Kong, I mean, people often ask why I don’t appear in it more. The answer is that I was alone, I didn’t have a camera crew or a sound crew doing it. I was operating the camera, so I was documenting what was happening.
It’s interesting you’re such a public admirer of Michael Moore’s films because his approach is exactly the opposite of yours.
You know what, I’m going to disagree with you there. I love Michael’s films and he’s a friend. Here’s what I think about these questions. As filmmakers, we all have our own voice, and those voices are going to be different. And Michael’s voice is to be very in-your-face. But there’s never any doubt about that, he’s always very up-front with what his opinions are and how he works. I think he has a fantastic voice, and I think he’s also very interested in making cinema that is going to engage the audience. So even though his approach to cinema is different than mine, I think we’re both trying to make a good movie, you know? Our goal is to make a movie that is going to stand the test of time and is also going to say something. He uses humour and a more confrontational approach. But I think ultimately we’re very similar in our goals. I just want to defend Michael, I think he’s great. Bowling for Columbine is so fantastic, how he’s brought issues to the fore. But then they’re also just good movies. And that’s what matters.
You told one interviewer how alarmed you were when you first went into the hotel room and saw that it was all white, and when you got into the editing room you said “why couldn’t there be darker walls, and why does he sit on the bed all the time?” But you made it work very well.
In retrospect, people think “Wow, is that something you came up with?” And I’m like, “noooo.” My first response was “Oh, this is really not good, this is going to be really hard to film.” But I think it really serves the film, it comments on the situation, all the whites and being enclosed in that room, I think actually helps the story even though my first response was, like, “This is not the room I would have chosen for cinematic purposes.”
"Our privacy is protected by rights, we should not just surrender those."
On the Oscar nominations, congratulations. It must seem kind of incongruous having to balance the high-risk work you’re doing with the demands of an Academy Award season.
That’s actually a really good way to describe it, it’s very incongruous, between those two things. I was actually working on some stories on the day I found out about the nomination, so I had to sort of shift gears. But it’s exciting. There’s definitely a way that the work that I do and many of my fellow documentarians, we’re dealing with pretty high-stakes situations. And then to shift gears and go into awards mode is a bit schizophrenic.
You’ve been through an Oscar campaign before, with one of your previous films.
Yeah [My Country, My Country] was nominated for the Oscars in 2007. And that was also a very peculiar experience because it was at the height of some of the ethnic violence that was happening, so it’s complicated. On one hand you’re excited and you want to celebrate, and on the other hand I make films about real-world stuff and people are, in many cases, not safe and can’t travel. In the case of Citizenfour, there are many people who I’d want to be able to invite who can’t travel to the United States. So it’s always a bit of a complicated situation.
But it must also be a great feeling of satisfaction to have the spotlight on your movies because obviously, the more people you can reach with the message, the more successful your risks and efforts have been.
Yeah, absolutely, I’m completely thrilled. Particularly as a filmmaker, this is the field I work in and even though I’ve been doing a lot of print journalism I’m a filmmaker, and so this is the field I feel I can contribute to the most. So to be nominated is really wonderful.
Australia is part of the Five Eyes alliance, and you are probably aware of the government’s controversial proposed approach to managing the internet. Do you have thoughts and/or advice to an Australian citizen on how to prepare and protect for that?
It’s really frightening, and I think people can resist by using encryption, secure their privacy regardless of what the governments do. We use it all the time, log-ins, online banking. Increasingly, I think we’re going to see service providers making encryption easier for users, that’ll be the first thing. Our privacy is protected by rights, we should not just surrender those.
Pace yourself during awards season.
I’ll do my best.
CITIZENFOUR goes into limited release in Australia 15 February through Madman Films. Watch the trailer below: