There’s a strange paradox at the heart of Laura Poitras’ landmark documentary Citizenfour: The film fearlessly exposes some of the most urgent truths about modern privacy and civil liberties, with unusual unimpeachability. But the information is presented with such startling immediacy, it’s hard to believe it’s real. By now, Edward Snowden is a household name, and the damning information contained in the classified documents the former NSA contractor leaked in June 2013 have become common knowledge. Yet Poitras’ documentary, informed by a degree of access that wouldn’t seem possible if the film didn’t explicitly detail how it was achieved, galvanizes this historical moment into a narrative worthy of the news it broke.
Filming from inside Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Poitras distills the leaks’ global implications into an irreducibly human drama that manages to be about Snowden without ever letting him become the story. The third film in a loose trilogy about the United States in the long shadow of 9/11 (following My Country, My Country and The Oath) Citizenfour is about how America’s leadership has used the most high-profile tragedy of the 21st century to subvert the Constitution and covertly transform the nation into a surveillance state. It’s also a breathless political thriller, and a clear-eyed portrait of how personal agency assumes new power when it’s threatened the most.
Poitras’ involvement has made herself into a target. An American born in Boston, she’s currently living in Berlin, and detained every time she enters her home country—more than 40 times now, she told a press conference earlier this year—Poitras recently sat down with The Dissolve a few days after Citizenfour premièred to a rapturous ovation at the New York Film Festival.
The Dissolve: At what point during your dialogue with Snowden did it become explicit what shape your footage would to take? You released that 12-minute snippet when the news was first breaking, but was it always agreed upon that you were collecting material for a feature-length documentary?
Laura Poitras: The way things unfolded… It started with a few emails in January 2013 from someone anonymous, someone I expected was going to remain anonymous. I expected that at some point, I would be given documents, but I would not know who was giving them to me. I said, “Is it really secure to talk by email? Should we meet in person?” And he said that wasn’t possible. And then in April, I received an email where he said, “Let me just set your expectations right. I will be identified, and my footprint will be left once the documents are published, and the government will know…” He basically just said, “Paint a target on my back,” because he didn’t want others to be caught up in the investigation. So as soon as he told me that, it shifted from, “Okay, this is an anonymous source who I’ll never know, to, “This is someone who’s going to be identified.” He didn’t ever ask to be filmed, but as a filmmaker, I immediately said, “If you’re going to be identified, then I want to meet you. And not just meet, but also film.”
His first response was no. He wasn’t interested, and he didn’t want to be the story. And I responded by saying that even if he didn’t want to be the story, he was going to be the story. Everyone was going to write about him, and his motivation would matter. He also didn’t want to meet because he felt that there were risks… He talked about this concept called “single point of failure,” which is a situation where stopping something in one place can end everything. He was worried that having me in the same room as him would risk the information getting out. They could shut us down or arrest us in one place, and that’s it. So he was like, “I didn’t risk my life to do an interview with you, I risked my life for this information to be public, and that’s going to be a problem if both of us get shut down simultaneously.” So we figured out a way it could work. By the time Glenn and I arrived, everybody knew I was a documentary filmmaker, there were no secrets. My camera was no surprise to anyone. I do think there was sort of a general aspect that everyone was sort of taking a leap of faith, a maximum risk—everyone was all in, not knowing what the outcome would be. I did meet with lawyers before going, and they were all like, “Sounds risky!” They said I shouldn’t record it, and I was like, “Oh no, I’ll be recording it!” [Laughs.] They told me that was riskier, because my footage could be subpoenaed, etc.
The Dissolve: Given the nature of what you were getting into, did you feel compelled to resolve your affairs before leaving for Hong Kong? Was your preparation informed by a sense that you might not be coming back?
Poitras: I prepared people in a different way. I knew this was going to go to a high level and piss off some powerful people, and that the people who I know would also be subjected to investigation—the government was going to want to know who is in my social circle. So I did give some warnings to people. There was a handful of friends who knew I was in touch with somebody who claimed to have this evidence about government surveillance, and that if it turned out to be true, it was going to be a big deal. So I had to inform people, so they could make decisions based on that. I went through certain security measures. I got seriously concerned about not wanting to leave traces, so I brought a printer with me because I wanted to be able to ask questions, and I wanted to be able to print them without having to do that at a Kinko’s somewhere.
The Dissolve: Snowden was clearly involved in shaping the narrative of this story and determining how the information might be disseminated, but did he make any particular requests? Did he care whether it showed up on YouTube later that month, vs. premièring in theaters more than a year later?
Poitras: Ed never expressed anything. I think he thought, “Why is this interesting?” And I was like “Trust me, it’s interesting.” But when we were in Hong Kong, I did seek permission to use his letters, and he gave me permission.
The Dissolve: Snowden comes off as incredibly composed and clear. Have you ever questioned his sincerity or his selflessness?
Poitras: No. I always knew he was doing something that he felt was worth it. He saw something he felt was dangerous, and he was going to expose it no matter what risks came with that. But he says he feels like it’s also a selfish act, in that he doesn’t want the government to know what he reads and writes. So I think he feels that disclosing information about NSA surveillance wasn’t just a self-sacrificing thing, that it was something he felt was in his interest, and the interest of people he cared about.
The Dissolve: To what extent, if any, were the emotions driving his actions—or your film—motivated by the failed promise of the Obama administration? How much does it amplify the betrayal of the American people’s trust that the current president came into office on such a wave of hope and promises of transparency?
Poitras: In general, I don’t want to speak for Snowden, but he was witnessing things before that he hoped would be reined in when Obama came into the office. And then he didn’t see that happen, and that’s what made him realize that the expansion of the surveillance state was not going to be curtailed by the executive branch.
The Dissolve: Your films all take measures to insist that you aren’t the story. But from the very beginning of Citizenfour, you’re implicitly involved in what’s happening. Was negotiating your presence a major concern for you while shaping the movie?
Poitras: It was obvious early in the making of this movie that, because I’m a participant in these events, the film had to be told from a subjective perspective. So I clearly had to be a narrator, that had to happen. But it was complicated to navigate. We had cuts where I was in it more, and it kind of felt like a personal essay, which is not what I like to do. I like to do more meaty cinema. I like scenes, I like drama in front of the camera, and not just personal… We tried to thread the needle by having me narrating it, and participating, but off-camera. But the things also unfold like drama, because there’s something magical that happens when you have shots, and reaction shots, and all the sort of things that are the building blocks of cinema. And since I was shooting it myself—it’s not like I was going with a crew!—I was also worried about sound and picture and focus. So there’s a scene where Ed is talking to Glenn about when he’s going to come out, and it pans back and forth a bunch of times. To me, that’s drama. I want the audience to get sucked into that. But we’re not trying to conceal the fact that I’m a participant as well. It’s a structural question that’s happened in all of my films. When I made the film about the Iraq War [My Country, My Country], I didn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that I was the imperiled Western journalist in a very dangerous place where people are getting their heads cut off. I could have used that, I could have brought the audience in.
The Dissolve: But you’re not Vice.
Poitras: Yeah. The danger of that is that I get all the audience’s empathy steered toward me, and the Iraqis become just “the dangerous people who try to kill you.” And I wanted to say that’s not the narrative, the narrative is about civilians and the consequences for them of this war. So it was a very intentional thing, not wanting to draw attention to myself. In this film, it was different, because I had an obligation to inform the viewer, but I also thought, “This is a story about Snowden.” Yeah, I’m part of that story, but I wanted his decisions and actions to be the focus.
The Dissolve: In a way, though, this film still presents you as the imperiled American journalist, but you’re only imperiled because you’re an American.
Poitras: I definitely felt like working on this film was the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, even if there were no bombs going off around us. It really felt much more dangerous than being in Iraq, because it was very clear that we were angering the highest levels of power in the world. It was very clear, very early on that there were lots of people who would like to stop us. I’m sure there were lots of conversations about trying to shut us down, and lots of different approaches as to how they might try and do that. But ultimately, we enjoy a lot of protection.
The Dissolve: You were in the midst of making a film about government surveillance before Snowden approached you, and a lot of the footage you shot appears in the first act of the movie. But most of Citizenfour is devoted to the Snowden interviews. How much was the shape of the finished film contingent on the fact that you were there as it was happening? If you’d only had been able to speak with Snowden after the fact, would you still have felt compelled to use him as your central subject?
Poitras: Well, my work is usually based on vérité material, so I’m interested in things that are happening in real-time when they unfold, because that’s when the heart of the drama exists. I’m definitely not an interview filmmaker. So if I was working on this film and I got an interview with Snowden once he was already in Moscow, it wouldn’t have been a big part of the film, even though he’s so high-profile, because I’m not interested in that kind of film. It basically comes down to, “Where’s the best material to tell a narrative?” In this case, it was in a hotel room in Hong Kong. It had a historical significance as a primary document, and that kind of journalism doesn’t often happen when there’s a camera present. And then the structure of the film organized itself around that. We didn’t want to shorten the Hong Kong part to fit other things in, we said, “Okay, if that’s an important part of the film that we want to unfold with patience, the rest of the film should build around it.”
The Dissolve: This was my first experience with journalists attending the première of a documentary film to report breaking news contained within the film itself. The partially withheld information in the final scene may not mean that much to the civilians in the audience, but it feels like a moment that cements the film’s broader purpose. The final revelation galvanizes viewers into action, and encourages them not to remain complacent.
Poitras: I totally agree. Long-form documentary filmmaking shouldn’t be in the business of breaking news. [Laughs.] It’s not going to have much of a shelf life. It was very clear that the film should have larger resonance than any news that might be broken in it, and that it should sustain that. It shouldn’t just be like flash, you get it. It should be something when once the news is out and digested, its purpose in the film still has meaning later. But I also didn’t position it there as a call to action. It’s there as a narrative ending—I wanted to say, “This story is not over. This is not a narrative that’s going to be tied with a neat little bow.” You know, Snowden’s girlfriend is now with him in Russia, and they all lived happily ever after.
The Dissolve: “The false catharsis of plot,” you called it.
Poitras: Yeah. I mean, there really is. Plot is really dangerous, and it’s also really effective. I make films that hopefully do have emotional meaning, and that’s usually done through plot. I follow certain people, and the audience comes to care about the people they’re watching. And I believe you can learn about information in a new way once you see how it can impact someone emotionally. So the NSA disclosures can have more meaning when you see that someone is risking their life to make them public. But on the other hand, the danger of plot is that everything is so clean, and the audience can just move on with their lives when it’s over. So no matter what, I didn’t want the ending of this film to be like that. I wanted it to push outside of the frame. Not so much as a call to advocacy, but to say, “This isn’t about what happened to Snowden. He took action to expose things, and now what do we do?” And that’s completely separate from his individual fate. Which isn’t to say I don’t care about his fate, but that the information he has provided to the world is now in our hands. And to focus on only him is for us to relinquish the responsibility that we have now that we know what we know.
The Dissolve: Understanding that you didn’t have the benefit of knowing Snowden before filming began, did you ever get a sense that he was performing for the camera?
Poitras: As he says, he’s never talked to any media before. There’s no feedback loop that could have informed that. He was also at a point in his life where he felt like he was all-in already, so who cares if there’s a camera? My experience has been that if the camera is there, it’s never not there, but if you film people while the stakes are high, they are who they are. I love the dynamic between him and Glenn, it’s really classic, but it wasn’t performed. In Hong Kong, Ed was acutely aware that the door could come crashing down at any minute, so I think he just wanted to get on with what he was trying to do.
The Dissolve: So there were no moments where he wanted a second take?
Poitras: No. We show in the public interview where he pauses, and there’s that part where we’re in between interviews and discuss how his message needs to be more concise. But beyond that, no, I’m a vérité filmmaker. Usually when you interject some sort of expectation or request, that’s when you get people second-guessing what they should or shouldn’t be doing.
The Dissolve: Inevitably, there’s the devil’s-advocate response to this film: “Okay, if NSA surveillance is protecting me, maybe I don’t mind sacrificing some civil liberties.” Snowden says more than anything, he just wants the public to have an informed say in how they’re governed. If the public has the information, and yet we choose to remain complacent, is he okay with that? Are you?
Poitras: No. I mean, there are laws that we live under, laws that apply even if there’s consent for the government to do otherwise. There are standards, and privacy is a basic right, and we have a Constitution that protects it. [Laughs.] And even if you don’t want your privacy, I want mine. And until the Constitution changes, we should fight for those rights. I think what you presented is a false argument. I think when people say they don’t care about their privacy, they’re actually not thinking very hard. Because if anyone came in and wanted to put a camera in their bedroom, they would object. But there’s a camera on their phone, and a tracking device on their phone. I think we haven’t yet seen the full implications to how that technology will be used.
The Dissolve: Citizenfour begins with a title card noting this is the third film in a trilogy. Was the idea behind that to locate and contextualize the film as a product of post-9/11 America?
Poitras: In terms of the card, it partially goes back to the question of how to implement a subjective voice. It was important that we introduce that early on. It was also important to establish that I was caught up in a watch-list system that was secret from me, and that it lead to a series of unintended consequences that somehow I get an anonymous email seven years later. So we wanted to compress these things so the movie begins with the feeling of, “A bunch of things happened, and now here we go.” And not have to use a lot of cinematic time to tell that narrative.