Laura Poitras is a lot of things: intelligent, articulate, careful in her communications, immensely expressive in her ideas and the passions that animate them. She's a fierce defender of civil liberties in the face of sweeping government programs that have little use for them. She's a journalist, an activist and about as close to a real-deal – the term is shudder-worthy in its earnestness, but I'll use it anyway – hero as a filmmaker can come. She's all these things and much more. But one thing Laura Poitras is not, is paranoid.
"I don't think 'paranoia' is the appropriate word to describe it," says the Boston-born Poitras, producer-director of the new doc Citizenfour, about the U.S. National Security Agency's post-Sept. 11, 2001, domestic spying programs and 29-year-old analyst Edward Snowden, who blew the lid off them. "A lot of people use the word paranoia and I'm like – dudes, I'm on a watch list. I've been stopped dozens of times at the border. It's not paranoid of me to protect my source material and myself. It's actually a very rational response."
This sort of caution is standard operating procedure for Poitras. She found herself on a U.S. Homeland Security watch list some time around the completion of My Country, My Country, her 2006 doc about Iraqis struggling to hold above-board democratic elections at the figurative (and sometimes literal) gunpoint of occupying American forces. To paraphrase Joseph Heller, you're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.
The hassles, harassment and detainments were compounded when Poitras left New York for Hong Kong in May of last year to film a series of conversations between state-surveillance whistleblower Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, resulting in a seismic shift in the post-9/11 discussion of homeland security and the looming spectre of terrorism, both real and imagined. Now Poitras lives and works in Berlin. The irony of retreating to one of the most relentlessly surveilled cities in human history isn't lost on her. But Poitras has found a home among the city's thriving community of hackers, journalists and privacy advocates.
"There's something quite optimistic about it," she explains over the phone from Berlin. "It's the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I'm sitting in an office in East Berlin, the home of the Stasi, probably one of the worst modern manifestations of state surveillance. What you have now is a context where privacy is actually enshrined as a right here. There's a historical memory of what has happened, and so there's more sensitivity of how dangerous, and what a threat, this surveillance can be."
Citizenfour makes this threat of massive, freedom-suppressing surveillance feel immanent in our present moment. Through its studious, fly-on-the-wall characterization of Snowden, Poitras recontextualizes the public image of an informer whose motivations have been derided in more pernicious quarters as the fame-seeking of a vainglorious nerd. "There's enough space in the film for people to form their own opinions of [Snowden]," she says. "One of the responses I've heard of the film is that it does change peoples' take on him. But that's not my goal as a filmmaker."
Instead, Poitras aimed to capture the action as it unfolded, seizing on what she calls the "unique set of circumstances" of having a whistleblower eager to expose his identity on camera. In one of Citizenfour's most clever cuts, the film shifts from firsthand footage of Snowden being cross-examined in his hotel bunker to similar footage being broadcast via network news on an enormous public TV screen in Hong Kong, essentially staging the moment when the story of Edward Snowden started belonging to the world.
"It was very weird for me," Poitras explains, "to be in this hotel room, and seeing images of mine on the BBC, while at the same time I'm still filming the same guy. It was this hall of mirrors. I've never been in that position as a filmmaker before."
Like all of Poitras's documentaries, Citizenfour is more than just a stitched-together string of political bombshells. Poitras crafts a film that's equal parts compassionate character study and espionage thriller. "I'm a journalist, but I'm also a filmmaker," she says. "So I'm making certain choices about how to pull the audience along. … Real people confronting conflicts in real time; it has all the elements of drama."