Laura Poitras. (photo: unknown)
By Matt Patches, Vanity Fair
24 October 14
She would travel to Hong Kong. The instructions were precise:
On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s cube so that you can identify me. Approach me and ask if I know the hours of the restaurant. I’ll respond by stating that I’m not sure and suggest you try the lounge instead. I’ll offer to show you where it is, and at that point we’re good. You simply need to follow naturally.
It’s June 2013. After months of encrypted correspondence, filmmaker-journalist Laura Poitras is in Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden a.k.a. “Citizenfour,” a mysterious Internet voice touting the government-secrets leak to top all government-secrets leaks. When Snowden’s first e-mail arrived in January 2013, Poitras was assembling a sprawling documentary exposé of America's surveillance tactics, with appearances by notable button-pushers like Julian Assange and N.S.A. whistleblowerWilliam Binney. Snowden altered the plan.
After months of work, Poitras would finally meet Edward Snowden, and together, with the help ofThe Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald, they’d blow the lid off the N.S.A.’s surveillance tactics. And she'd capture the entire operation on camera.
There’s a reason Poitras is on the Homeland Security “watch list,” why she resides in Berlin, where she can make films without government intrusion. She documents hard truths. They sting.Citizenfour, the piping-hot end product of her Hong Kong rendezvous, is the end of Poitras’s self-described post-9/11 trilogy: 2006’s My Country, My Country painted a portrait of average Iraqi life under U.S. occupation; 2010's The Oath follows two Yemeni men, both former Osama bin Laden employees, as they navigate life outside al-Qaeda; Citizenfour centers on Snowden and blossoms outward, a disparaging look at N.S.A. conduct akin to a John le Carré adaptation.
VF.com spoke to Poitras on making her impossible-to-imagine documentary, befriending, understanding, and filming Snowden as the 21st century’s most prominent whistleblowing went down in real time:
After the Department of Homeland Security put you on its watch list, you settled in Berlin to compile your film on surveillance. What was your biggest fear? What would they actually do?
Before I was contacted by Snowden in 2013, I was stopped and detained every time I crossed the U.S. border. The border agents would take my notebooks and photocopy them, take my receipts and photocopy them, take my credit cards, ask me questions about where I had been, what I had done. This becomes an invasive process at some point [laughs]. I started becoming more careful about what I carried across the border. Agents would say to me, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find out our answers on your electronics.” A pretty straight up threat. O.K., if you’re going to find out your answers on my electronics, I’m going to stop taking my electronics across the border.
After six years of going through this, I was editing a film and I was worried that my footage would be seized. That’s why I ended up in Berlin to edit the film. When I was in Berlin, that’s when the first e-mail came. At that point, I was savvy with encryption, but I knew quickly that it was a whole other level. It was the N.S.A. I needed to take more precautions. So I had a computer I purchased with cash, checked in from different locations, and created anonymous accounts, thinking that, if the source I was talking to turned out to be true, they were putting their life on the line, I should take whatever security measures in my power to protect them.
Initially, he didn’t want you to film him.
It wasn’t until April , three months into corresponding, did he say, “I plan to come forward as the source and my identity will be revealed in the leaks.” He wouldn’t scrub the metadata that would point to him. That was not what I expected. I expected him to be an anonymous source I’d never meet. Then I was told something quite different: “I’m coming forward and I want you to paint a target on my back because I don’t want a leak investigation that ruins the lives of others.” Which is what we saw with William Binney and Tom Drake. I think Snowden wanted to take responsibility so others didn’t take the fall. When he told me that, I told him, “I want to meet you and I want to film.” His response was: “No, I don’t want to be the story.” There was also a risk of us being in the same place at the same time. He didn’t want to take risks and then someone busts in the door and all this work to get the information out and it doesn’t get out. It wasn’t worth that calculus. I assured him it wouldn’t happen. The reporting would continue if something happened to both of us.
In the eight days you filmed Snowden, did you see and learn about a side of him that wasn’t tied to the leak?
On the first day, Glenn did a really lengthy debrief with him. They went through his whole life. Someday, I’ll release that footage. There are time constraints in terms of narrative—you can’t stop a film and have a two-hour interview in the middle of it. We had to make those kinds of choices that would make the final film. Personally, of the films that I do, they’re about things happening in real time. In those moments you learn a lot about people, which is different than what people say about themselves. There are narratives we tell about ourselves, but we’re defined by our actions. You learn a lot about people in that hotel room.
Does Snowden have an interest in the fictional? Or film in general? Citizenfour, with its thriller-like flourishes, made me wonder if pop culture provoked Snowden to take action.
In the sense that the movie plays like a thriller, it felt like one from my perspective. A stranger reaches out to me and starts telling me that he has evidence of a massive government surveillance. Then you go in the room, he’s pretty down to Earth. That’s actually one of the most interesting things is how natural and open and honest he is with total strangers. Basically there to help us get the information out. I don’t think he was casting himself in some role. He made a choice that would end his previous life, an uncertain future with lots of risks.
There’s a shot towards the end of the film of Snowden and Lindsay [Mills, his girlfriend] cooking dinner in their Moscow home. How’d you shoot that?
My editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, and I went out to Moscow to screen the film so he could see it before we presented to the world, which I’ve done for every film I’ve ever made. We got permission that we could film. I wanted to show that they were together, but [in a way] that was respectful of privacy and not replicate what happened in the immediate aftermath of Hong Kong. [After Snowden revealed his identity, both the media and the government circled Mills at the home they shared in Hawaii]
The last scene in the movie is a bit of a cliffhanger. There’s more story here.
Sequels? Would you consider coming back to Snowden?
It’s too soon to say. I’m definitely continuing reporting on disclosures and have a sense that the film, not so much as a cliffhanger, but there are people who came forward before Snowden and there are people coming after Snowden. They’re taking enormous risks revealing information that the public has a right to know. There’s a conflict between the government trying to stop this from happening and the people taking risks to do it. That relates to the journalists and whistleblowers. I wanted the end not to feel like there’s closure.
There are multiple Hollywood projects in development that plan to adapt Snowden’s story for biopic-like dramas. Can fictionalized accounts undercut what you’ve done here or is there room beside Citizenfour to dramatize these events?
Unlike other major journalism stories, this is one that was actually documented. It’ll be harder to fictionalize it. I mean, I’m a huge fan of All the President’s Men. It’s one of the most brilliant films ever made. If someone wants to do something on par with that, they have my blessing. Mine is based on actual historical reference. I was in a unique situation of filming something you were never supposed to see.
Would you recommend anyone encrypt their e-mail? Is that the future? Should we stop using Google?
I don’t think anyone should have to give up those things, but I don’t think it’s bad to know what the privacy tools are. For instance, the Tor Browsers are completely easy to use. Maybe someday, you’re going to want to do a search for something where you’re not going to want to tie it to your IP address. Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to do a Google search. Google customizes your search based on who it thinks you are. Maybe you want to do a Google search that isn’t customized to who Google thinks you are, but what Google thinks of an anonymous person. Using the Tor Browser allows you to do that. You can use it every day. You’re not giving up any rights and it allows you to have more privacy.
Citizenfour arrives in theaters on October 24.
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