An obligation to report

Laura Poitras talks about “Citizenfour”, her documentary about Edward Snowden, the NSA, and surveillance that won the `Academy Award´. Yes, this is what professionals also call the Oscar - it is now official that the arts have, after many years of activists risking their sanity, freedom and their families, joined the new clash of cultures on the sensitive and progressive side. During a Q&A at the 52nd New York Film Festival, she recalls her transformation from a documentary journalist into an activist during the production of the film that narrates her stay with Glenn Greenwald and Snowden in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Citizenfour won the 2014 Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary and the International Documentary Association award for best documentary feature. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2015. (our first update from February, 2015: “It has won the Oscar in this category.)


  • Date of recording: Fri, 2014-10-10
  • Language(s) spoken:

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0:00:04 Acknowledgements

Moderator: Please welcome Laura Poitras! Thank’s Laura.

LP: Thank’s for being here. It’s really such an honor to show this home at this festival. Actually, before you dive in, there are people who are in the film that I would like to acknowledge and thank, so: I believe Glenn Greenwald is here… where’s Glenn? William Binney … Ian[?] MacAskill, I believe, is here. David Miranda … and I think, I think that if I’m … if I’m missing … I think that’s who is here.

And I wanted to do one other thing, that we couldn’t do last night after the Premiere, it is to … and it’s actually also somehow relating to the film: it’s to thank the funders who supported this film.

And they came on board in the most unusual circumstances, because when we approached each of them, we asked them to … to be incredibly discrete about the film and about the contents of the film. They - all of them made trips to Berlin to watch the cut. They, in some cases, didn’t actually know what the final film would be until the end.

We had redaction scenes that we showed, because … for source protection reasons, until we were ready to release it, and I know for the New York Film Festival. For we did a screening for the festival committee when we scheduled it here, but then moved to another location and we had to be… and some other things. so everybody has been - everyone who supported this film has taken an enormous leap of faith and has kept the confidence that we’ve asked them to keep, for the purpose that we could do our work as securely as possible until we were ready to release it.

So, I’m grateful to all the people who supported this film, not just for their support but for their sensitivity to the demands of this film.

So, I’m going to have to name them. First and foremost Radius, who is distributing the film. Tom Crean [Quinn?] came to Berlin in February, and he said he’d heard about the film and that we’re working on it, and said that he wanted to be involved, and we showed him some footage.

They’ve been extraordinary in their support and in not, you know, … I think their instinct as distributors that it shouldn’t be announced that we were involved, and they, you know, totally listened to what we needed, which was to remain as discrete as possible for as long as possible.

Participant Media and … Diane Wireman is a dear friend, and we’ve known each other for years, and she was one of the biggest supporters in the film that I made in Iraq. I worked with her when she was at Sundance, right after I came back from Baghdad, and I was in, you know, still shell-shocked from the experience, and she supported that film. And we have always wanted to work together and never really knew how we would make it happen. And she made a trip to Berlin, I think in the festival, and we talked and she said, “You know, this is something I think we could do. You know, this is a film about journalism.” And she went to the people she works with, and said “You’re gonna find a film but you’re not going to know anything about it, you are not going to know the title and have any details”. And they came on board, and so I’m incredibly grateful to Participant for their trust.

HBO documentary films - I don’t know if Sheila is here? Anyone from HBO? Ok, this was extraordinary that that they’ve come on board.

I mean they … Sheila saw the film and loved it, and she’s, you know, she’s a champion of liberty [?] filmmaking and I think it spoke to her. But she’s also been so extraordinary and supporting our desire to have theatrical effect.

And Bertha foundation and Brit doc have been among the first supporters, and Jess has been tireless in her support for this film and getting it into the world.

Channel 4 is also one of our broadcast supporters in the UK. David Minton final projects… David is executive producer and has been supporting some of the most progressive documentary films.

And I have only three more, so: NDR and BR, which is our broadcaster in Germany, and they’ve approached us immediately. Much of the reporting that I’ve done has been based in Berlin. And they’ve been tireless in their support. And Cineoreach [?] so I’d like to thank them, and Sundance.

So thank you so much. Okay.

0:06:03 The balance between reporting and filmmaking

Moderator: there’s a lot to talk about but I’ll start with  a big multi-faceted question: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about this balancing the needs between reporting and breaking a new story and being part of the story and also making a film.

LP: You mean it like in terms of what’s in the film or working both reporting and making the film at the same time?

Moderator: Because: you were in the hotel room, and obviously you did release video and were part of that, you were part of that story breaking well over a year ago, but at the same time, you had this longer-term film in mind.

LP: I mean it’s been a complicated sort of navigating roles while making this film. In the months when I was receiving the emails from Snowden, I was also in the process of making a film about surveillance and I had an idea that, of course, this would find its way into that film and I was very much in that relationship of, you know, source-journalist relationship, and he was claiming to have evidence of NSA surveillance and…

 But when it soon became clear that I would meet him - and I should contextualize it: For a long time, I thought that I was in dialogue with somebody who’s an anonymous source that I would never meet, never know who they are, that I would receive documents in and that we … that I would, you know, team up with people who would report.

I think it was in April where he communicated to me that, in fact, his identity would be revealed. That he didn’t intend to remain anonymous and that his identity would be revealed, and both because it would be, you know, discovered, and because he didn’t want to remain in the shadows.

And when he told me, that is when I sort of said, okay well, as a filmmaker, then I said, then really we need to meet, and I want to be able to film you. And his first response was: No. He said that the story isn’t about him, it’s about the issues and that he wanted that to be what people focused on. And I responded by saying that, well, the fact that, you know, he’s putting his life on the line to release information was very important for the public to know, and that only he can answer that question and that the documents won’t speak to that.

And he also had a serious concern that if, you know, he’d taken this enormous risks to make this information available, and he was concerned about us being in the same place at the same time because there is a risk that if we got shut down that the information maybe wouldn’t, you know, reach the public. So that was another security concern about actually physically meeting.

0:08:37 Turning from an observer into a participant

But I was able to convince him of the importance that only he could speak to the motivations of coming forward and that even if he chose not to be part of the story, he would be, because the press would report on him. So then he agreed to meet and so when I went to Hong Kong with Glenn and you … I was very clear that my job was as a documentarian, like as a visual journalist, that I wasn’t there to, you know, look at the … you know, to study the archive or to report on it. At that moment I was there to document this moment of journalism, really, and what and how Glen and Hugh (?)worked with him and in receiving this information and reporting on it. And I felt that if there’s anything I could contribute to understanding, that’s sort of what my whatever unique skill sets were, where they, you know, are … Writing and reporting would break the news. Where I would sort of document this historic event that was happening in Hong Kong.

And so is very clear, that’s what my role was, I wasn’t looking at their archive or reporting. But then, when he went underground and I returned to Berlin, it was very clear that I had an obligation to report.

I mean that he had put, you know, risked so much, and that I had to, then, sort of shift my focus and look at the archiving and report. And that’s when I started teaming up with their Spiegel and other news organizations to report. But there has been a strange you know push-pull like, we, you know, you see, we were reporting on the Merkel story, and I’m also filming.

I mean there … everything about this film is kind of, you know, looped in on itself. I mean that’s very much why it was necessary that the film have a subjective voice, you know, in it, so that the audience knows that I’m not an outsider, that I’m also participating in the events that are unfolding.

0:10:37 The post-9/11 trilogy

Moderator: Can you talk about that a bit, actually, because this is the third film in your post 9/11 trilogy, and I think it differs from the other two in several significant ways: the most obvious one being that you are a, you know, a participant in the story, and you are not present in the other two films.

Can you talk about the thought process and how you arrived at…

LP: I mean, not unlike Snowden, I actually didn’t want to be in this film, and my editor Mathilda [?] would testify to that. But it was clear that I had to be, that I had to be present in the film, because the audience had a right to know that I was a participant in the events.

But the question of how to be sort of subjective, it’s a complicated one for these three films.

I made the film in Iraq I was filming with the Iraqi civilians, and it was a very dangerous time to be working in Iraq, but I didn’t want to be the focus to be on the western journalist, you know, in a dangerous conflict zone, because then serve on the and empathetic energy could have moved towards me rather than the people that I actually wanted to be the focus of the story.

So in Iraq, it was - I absolutely didn’t want to draw any attention to the circumstances of how I was working, or any risks that I might face, because it was about having people understand what the occupation is like from the perspective of Iraqis and the US military. So I’m very invisible in that film, I mean I always think that you know, obviously there’s a camera there, so I’m sort of part of it. You know I’ve been invited, I’m present.

With “The Oath”, it was actually a complicated one: I approached it in the same way, I observed, with a wearable camera, you know, watching scenes unfold, but Jonathan Oppenheim who edited it … At some point, he was to be doing test screenings before we finished, and he was aware there was an uneasiness amongst the audience that we didn’t acknowledge a presence of a camera because the axis was sort of so unusual. And it was like a outside camera here, so we realize that we were taking the view outside of the story by not acknowledging the presence - my presence. So he then changed it, and put my voice in a few things.

And so … this one, you know, it begins with … I think this film begins with “I”, you know “I was placed on a watch list”. It’s certainly the first film that I’ve done from first-person.

0:13:00 First plans for a documentary on surveillance

Moderator: Can you maybe backtrack a little bit and talk about how this project emerged and what was going on before Snowden arrived, you know, before that first email? I know that the idea was to make a film about surveillance, which obviously is a large, abstract, invisible subject.

What were you doing in the, you know, in the … I know you’ve been working on this since “The Oath” and … What were you doing in the years before, and obviously some of the figures you are following, some are in this film, obviously.

LP: Yeah, this film actually began in the spring of 2011, and I was interested, like, a few months around …  it was also when WikiLeaks was coming out, and I was interested in the work that they were doing, which also related to journalism. So I was interested in these themes, and I was working on trying to figure out what access …

I mean, oftentimes my work it’s about … there’s some themes I’m interested in, and then it’s like trying to figure out how … how I can, you know, follow, or what will take me on a journey that will help me understand those things, and so.

But, actually, in the spring of 2011, I didn’t quite know, but I was really interested in this, you know, this guy who’s blogging for And he was down in Rio, you know, I was reading him all the time and he was just doing this really fierce journalism, totally outside of the mainstream, and I loved his work. And I didn’t quite know what the film … and how it would come together, but I said “Well, okay, let’s try to get a plane, and spend some time with him.” And that’s when I first filmed with Glenn.

And then I was with Jones, the cinematographer, and it’s the opening. It has turned out to be the opening of the film, and he’s at that very moment blogging, writing about Jane Mayer’s article about Thomas Drake as an essay whistleblower who was at that point facing espionage charges. So, it’s, ironically, that has turned out shoot per shoot. And then, for the film expanded, I actually reached out to Bill Binney, at exactly that time, right after the New Yorker piece broke. So I actually called Bill from Rio, so the sort of origins happened there.

But then I started expanding, and I did a lot of filming with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks and also Jacob Appelbaum, who you see in the film, the TOR project, and I was very interested in, yeah, surveillance, people with resistance movements, people who are working as activists.

I mean this was sort of in the aftershock of the Arab Spring, so if I was filming in Tunisia where Jake was working and also Egypt and then… So we were actually, Mathilda (?) and I were editing, you know, that film, and then Snowden started to email, and what happened was - in the end we realized, in the editing room, we realize we achieved two films.

You know, there is … because the material that I shot around Snowden and the way to Hong Kong, we knew it would occupy a large piece of the film, and it kind of dictated what this film would be like. For a while, we had a lot more material before we arrived in Hong Kong and then, it just was very hard to shift gears, it was like you opened a different story in a midway through.

And so we realized that there were two films, and that this one was going to focus on Snowden. But it was, you know, this is a decision that we made in the editing room, that there’s material for two films.

0:16:36 On the structure of the film

Moderator: can you talk a little bit about shaping the material in the hotel room which, I think, it’s a full hour of the film.

It’s sequenced chronologically, but it’s … I think it’s amazing how it’s shaped, you know, in terms of like how you allow for humor to come into it as well. And this is the sense of suspense as the sequence plays out.

How much did you shoot?

LP: I mean, in terms of the structure, I mean, you know Mathilda is here, my extraordinary artistic collaborator on this film, who is, you know, …

And I actually would say that she should come down and actually address … I mean I would love to invite you down, to answer your question.

I mean, I can say, as she’s walking down: After I came back, I mean I was a bit … it was a kind of a dramatic shoot in the sense that the stakes were really high in the room and not knowing … and so she was the one who sort of took the footage and was the first one to watch it before, then I started to see what she selects.

[brief recapitulation of question for collaborator on stage]

Mathilda [?]: Yeah, I think we had some - I didn’t really count the hours, but I think we have something like twenty hours of footage for Hong Kong. Maybe that’s a bit exaggerated, maybe, but that’s around the time we had. And what was particularly difficult about it was that it was all extraordinary, all of it was completely extraordinary. We could have taken anything, more or less. And it would have been shocking and beautiful.

So, the difficulty was to make choices, knowing that we left out passages that would be also mind-blowing. That’s one of the aspects of it, but of course, very soon, we also noticed that we needed follow a very clear narrative line which was that of a story unfolding in that style which is almost like a fiction film. We follow things as they happen, and the more we did that, the more we started to understand that we could not go into certain directions.

For example, we had to steer clear from opinions, statements that Snowden made, that were very beautiful, and that was very compelling also, because of course you notice he’s extremely articulate and a very thoughtful person. And so humid, extraordinary statements that we were very tempted to use, but then after a while we noticed that we could not use them because it was taking us out of this narrative form that we were finding. So that was one of the main discoveries we made and, right, and then of course after a while we had to streamline.

Moderator: I would love to take some questions from the in-circuit, many hands… You do? OK. Great. So is somebody going to call in the audience or should I? I will, okay. Let’s start: there, yes.

0:20:22 Snowden’s decisions and the drone program

Q1:First of all, thank you very much for this movie, for this documentary.

I was wondering if you could speak a little bit… On two occasions, Snowden talks about the drone program and its effect on his decision making. Could you say something more about it or how he articulated the reasons for his reaching out to you?

LP: I mean, you know, I think the reference that we included, where he says that you know one of the motivations is, you know, being in the NSA, seeing into the escalation of the drone program as …

And also, you know how he articulates that, you know, hope, like that some of these policies will be reined in, and there weren’t this kind of escalations in certain policies, and so - it’s actually really what, you know, we show you. But what he says on that, which is that it’s one of the things that brought him forward, this was about the drones. And I would say, obviously it’s occurred at the end, you know, when its brought up when somebody else also comes forward to expose this.

0:21:38 Snowden in Russia

Q2: Hi. Thank you for your bold filmmaking. I’m just curious: how does Edward Snowden feel about living now in Russia?

LP: I mean in general I avoid speaking on his behalf.

I mean, I think though, but I think you can say that he … I think he’s grateful to have political asylum. I think he is not aligned with all, you know, you know the political reality there, but I think that he made the choice that he, you know, didn’t feel that staying, you know, in the US was an option for him.

So I think he’s now … but a he’s also … I think he’s keeping options open, if there are other possible countries for him to seek asylum.

0:22:27 Why the hurry?

Q3: Yes, am I on now? So, my question is: I didn’t understand the urgency to really put stories out while you were in the hotel room. Because none of the stories were in my perception time-sensitive. So my question is: why wasn’t more care given to the plan for what would happen to ensure Snowden’s safety rather than … I mean, of a sudden, there was this crazy environment created, and I don’t understand the reason for that.

Does my question make sense? And then, related to that is: was there really, really no plan beyond what we see in the film for what Snowden would do to ensure his safety?

LP: I mean, I think that the interns have a timeline.

I mean, I can step back and say that I didn’t know that he was leaving the country, until he had actually already left. You know, we were in dialogue, I come back to New York to set up a time to meet him, thinking I was going to suburban Maryland or something, and then he left the country.

And I think that that’s actually when the time started ticking, in terms of his … You don’t leave the country and, you know, work for the NSA without it being noticed and so there was a bit of an … whatever … urgency in terms of am a publishing because his absence would be noticed.

And then, in terms of his, like, what we knew over … what I knew of his … you know what he was gonna do next. In my experience, working with him as a source, he would tell me something which would then tell me what I needed to know, you know, like he said: “I’m gonna have information” and then he said “Well, here’s where you can download it” and etc. Then I actually thought that maybe I just didn’t know what the next step was.

This is part of the answer, and yeah, what you see, and then I realized, we realized, in Hong Kong, is that all his planning did actually … and there, you know, but that actually was… and that’s an.., and that when the lawyers came in, that, you know, they then helped him, you know, go underground. So…

But in terms of the time, I mean, I think that, and [inaudible] can speak to this: I think that was a need like that, that it was important that we publish, and quickly, because … to get the story out, and to have the public awareness of it happen, unfold.

And I can say one other thing: since he had decided that he would reveal his identity, we actually wanted to do that before it was announced by the government and it’s clear that as soon as Glenn’s rise in story … it’s when they come to Lindsey’s and his home, so we knew that the government was aware that he was missing. And so we wanted to … we wanted him to have the first chance to say why he did what he did.

0:25:41 Return to the USA

Q4: Yes, Laura, I’m wondering if you - did you encounter any problems going back into the US? This time, for the screening, have you had any kind of bounce-back, personally, from Big Brother on all of this?

LP: you know, I’ve had years of being stopped at the border and actually that did … that stopped, being interrogated at the borders, in 2012 actually, after Glenn wrote a piece about it, and they did stop doing that. And in terms of coming back: I didn’t have any problems, and I haven’t been contacted by the US government regarding this reporting.

Moderator: i think this is maybe the last question, but this reminder that we have a talk with laura at 4 o’clock as well.

0:26:33 Civilian victims of drone strikes

Q5: Hi Laura. I and my organization represents a number of civilian victims of drone attacks, people at the sharp end of that chain that you show at the end of your program. And there’s something about the movie I have a hard time sort of reconciling, which is that you guys have exposed a system that is unbelievable in its sophistication and its power.

I mean that kind of short version is that we all live in the panopticon, right? But the civilian victims of drone attacks are an example of the limits of that system and the way that notwithstanding how powerful metadata collection is, the mistakes are made. And what I can’t understand, and what I can’t reconcile, is: How does that happen? Does, to you, does it speak more to the indifference of the United States government to the lives of people in Yemen and Pakistan who die, or to the limits of the technology, or, some make sure, both?

LP: I mean, I mean, the mistakes, I mean, let’s just say… I mean I would say that the drone program, whether or not they … yeah I mean it’s atrocious (?) that we have a drone program there, where we are, you know, targeting people, and killing them. Whether or not that is based on metadata or anything.

You know, we think of democracies as having something called the rule of law and that’s … the drone program will never align itself with that. But in terms of … yeah, I mean, I think there actually … you know, there is indifference to civilians, and we know that from, you know, I spent time in Iraq.

And there’s indifference to civilian casualties and I know and hopefully that changes. And hopefully we continue to do reporting that will hopefully have some impact in … and raise awareness for the civilian consequences, particularly of the drone program.

Moderator: That’s all the time we have. Laura, thank you very much.





Laura Poitras 2014” by Katy Scoggin at Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -