'What the War on Terror Actually Looks Like': Laura Poitras on Citizenfour

An interview with the filmmaker as her documentary on mass surveillance hits theaters

The ultimate insider's exposé of the National Security Agency is about to hit theaters. When Citizenfour opens Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras will have given moviegoers an unprecedented look at whistleblower Edward Snowden as he pulled back the curtain on mass surveillance in the United States and the world. This week, I spoke to Poitras about her body of work, including Citizenfour (I reviewed the film here after a press screening), The Oath, her movie on the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and My Country, My Country, her Iraq War documentary. This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Conor Friedersdorf: What prompted you to become a dissenter?

Laura Poitras: It was a response to historical circumstances, particularly the buildup to the Iraq War and the prison at Guantanamo. I thought that there was a moral drift, that we'd look back on post-9/11 America as a dark chapter in U.S. history. To have a prison where people are sent without charges, and then engaging in a preemptive war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11—that seemed like a frightening precedent, that we're going to attack a country because we think it might cause us harm in the future. I felt that these were dark times, that I felt compelled to say something about it, and that as a documentarian I had skills that would help me channel my impressions and thoughts.

At the very least, I would create a historical record. I don't know if my work changed anyone's opinion. The Iraq War continued for a long time. Guantanamo is still open. But I wanted to express something about a drift away from the rule of law and basic principles of democracy, to document what was happening. I thought I was choosing whether to make a film about the Iraq War or Guantanamo. When I finished My Country, My Country, the film on Iraq, I was shocked that Guantanamo was still open. It was 2005 when I knew I'd take a broader look at post-9/11 America, and that it would probably occupy me for a long time.

Friedersdorf: Once you've chosen to make a film about a subject, you go out and do a lot of reporting. Does that process tend to confirm whatever impressions peaked your interest, or are you surprised by aspects of what you're trying to portray?

Poitras: I go into a story with interest in certain broad themes and try to see where I can document them. So I spend time on the ground and start filming people. And then things change. It stops becoming about my preconceptions of a situation and becomes about whoever I'm spending time with. I look at political issues through people experiencing them rather than personal opinions. They become the lens through which I understand what's happening.

When I went to Iraq, I thought this idea of occupation to bring democracy was contradictory, that it would not turn out well. But when I got there and started meeting Iraqis—when I saw their perspective after living under 30 years of a brutal dictator—I had to shift from whatever my New York perspective of the Iraq War was to what it was like for people who live in Iraq. So for instance, I was very cynical of the democracy project that the United States brought in, but I also witnessed people who were willing to put their lives on the line to vote. And I have to say that I don't know many Americans who would put their lives on the line to vote.

There was just a hunger for democracy.

People would talk about politics over dinner for four hours. It was more politically engaged than what I'd experienced in the U.S. So I had to shift my preconceptions. I still thought the circumstances under which these elections were going to happen was not really how you wanted self-determination to unfold. Americans were behind the scenes orchestrating things, and we're seeing the fallout.

But my impressions did change, because I had to have more respect for what Iraqis wanted. There's an openness to the process of making films that I'm interested in. Hopefully the audience will find characters they like or don't like, impressions with which they agree or disagree. It's not just about imprinting my opinions.

Friedersdorf: After your films on Iraq and Guantanamo you delved into the subject of surveillance. Why?

Poitras: I began documenting something in an observational way and then got pulled into the history that I was documenting. That certainly happened when I was put on a watch list by the U.S. government and began to be detained at borders. But it wasn't just because I was put on a watch list that I was interested in surveillance.

Over the course of my films, I've shifted from thinking that the pendulum swung in one direction after 9/11 and would swing back, to being less naive about the choices that were made. Surveillance is one of the ways the national-security state expanded after 9/11. I always thought that, after doing the Guantanamo film, I wanted to do something to bring the story home, and surveillance is set in the U.S. But it seemed like a tough theme to approach in a documentary because it's hidden.

Friedersdorf: There's been a lot of written journalism about post-9/11 America, a lot of audio journalism. What does the visual medium bring to these stories?

Poitras: It changes the way that we understand. There are things that are known already. But if you're able to see them visually it broadens your understanding of what your country is doing. For instance, in January 2004 there was a newspaper article about an investigation into prisoner abuse at some prison camp in Iraq. It was buried in The New York Times. No one followed up on it. I remember reading it and moving right along. That could've been all that we ever knew about Abu Ghraib. But a soldier found the photographs and made them public. Then you see the photographs. It becomes a moment of reckoning, where we see what the War on Terror actually looks like. It completely changes. I think images have that potential. You can look at the Holocaust. Without the recorded documentation it can be denied. Now there's no way to deny what was done there.

Torture is another example. The country knows we've tortured people. Well, if the United States wants to torture, then let us see the videos. Let's see what it is that we're doing. Why are we destroying these videos? They should be released. There are these photographs that were going to be released after Obama was elected, but that have now been censored. I think the public has a right to these kinds of images—and they will change perceptions, I think, about what was done. It helps us to answer the moral question, do we want to be the kind of country that does this, or not?

As a filmmaker, I am interested in understanding human decisions and consequences in these situations—and through that, understanding what the implications are. The Iraq War would be an example. Spend time with a family and you understand the war in a different way. We were getting lots of reporting about body counts every day in the newspapers. But I don't think that people really associated those numbers with people. There is this hierarchy of whose lives get to count, whose lives don't, and that's part of what I'm trying to do: Give people names, better understand things, so we can at least come to terms with the impact of these polices.

Friedersdorf: You often have strong opinions about the subjects you tackle, but the decisions you make in your films are different from those that, for example, Glenn Greenwald might make if he were a director. How do you decide how much to inject your opinion, how directly to make arguments, how polemical to be?

Poitras: My interest isn't in transiting my opinions through my films. The films are subjective. I do make choices. I do stay close to protagonists, rather than doing interviews with experts to contextualize everything. But I'm primarily interested in the human drama of things and letting that come across in my work. I'm a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald, who takes no prisoners in his writing. I'm a huge fan of Michael Moore. But I think it's a question of voice. I have a different voice.

Friedersdorf: Most people aren't dissenters. Has being a high-profile dissenter affected your relationships? Have your family or friends expressed surprise at the path you've taken? Do they worry about your safety and happiness?

Poitras: I've been surrounded by incredible support by friends, family, and the documentary community. There are people in that community who know and value the work I'm doing, and if things ever got bad there are people who would stand up and defend it.

That's also been true of the funding I've gotten. When I first decided to make a film about Guantanamo, I had this idea of going to Yemen and finding an innocent person who was swept up returning home and trying to document their experience of reintegration after returning from the prison. That was the story I wanted to tell. When I got to Yemen, I was introduced to Osama bin Laden's former body guard, who was driving a taxi cab. It wasn't at all the story I was looking for but I was fascinated by it. Why was this guy who was so close to Bin Laden driving a taxi? How do we understand this when we know that there were people who had no direct association that had been at Guantanamo at that point for eight years?

The story made me nervous, because it was hard to pin him down, to know what he stood for, but I was fascinated. So I thought, I'm not going to ignore the story, I'll keep filming it.

Lawrence Wright writes about it. He was this guy, Abu Jandal, who was in Yemen on 9/11, he was detained and interrogated by Ali Soufan from the FBI six days after 9/11, when they read him his Miranda rights. This interrogation was so significant that they delayed bombing Afghanistan, they held off, because of the information coming out.

So in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the moment when you'd think the sort of violence we saw later at black sites might be most likely to happen, you have Bin Laden's bodyguard, an interrogator with colleagues who had died in the rubble on 9/11, and they read him his Miranda rights. And the interrogation informs this report that provides enormous amounts of intelligence. It proved that traditional interrogation works, and raises the question, what if they'd have kept going in this other direction? But when I started following him, a guy who was Bin Laden's driver instead of someone just swept into Guantanamo, I thought all my funders were going to run in the other direction. And it was the opposite. I had institutional support from so many organizations. There's a sense that my work is contributing to an understanding of the the post 9/11 era, and people want to support that. And my friends haven't stopped contacting me because they don't want to get caught up in my association grid. Because let's face it, I have one.

Friedersdorf: Yes. And you were harassed at airports—harassed, in fact, by a government that has tortured, a government that kills people, even American citizens, in drone strikes. Yet sitting here for this interview we both have the expectation that black helicopters won't suddenly emerge on the horizon and gun us down. How do you make sense of the U.S. government? What's your notion of how far it would go? How safe do you ultimately feel as a dissident journalist?

Poitras: Being put on a watch list, I think there are things that it isn't and things that it is. I don't think that there are police watching movies and saying, we're going to put these people on a list because we don't like their movies. I don't think it's that. I don't think we've got to that level. But I do think there's a vast expansion of an intelligence-gathering apparatus, and there's a system in which people sit and nominate people to put on watch lists. I somehow became one of those people. The impact hasn't stopped me from working. But it has created huge hurdles to do the work. Being interrogated or detained every time I returned to the United States. Having my computer taken. Having agents say to me things like, "If you don't answer our questions we'll find the answers on your electronics."

It is quite aggressive in how it played out. At first I naively thought it was some kind of mistake that I could clear up, that I would just find the right person and explain that, no, I make documentaries, I record footage of people and produce films.

It's tough to know where the line is. I've never felt—there are other countries where I couldn't do the work that I do.

But in the immediate aftermath of Hong Kong there was total uncertainty. Let's face it, there's been not only Obama going after whistleblowers, but also going after journalists. I'm very aware of the James Rosen case, where he was labeled a co-conspirator in order to get his records—that's scary stuff. I had meetings before Hong Kong where people said, well, the Espionage Act has never been used in this way to go after the press. But that doesn't mean that it never will be used.

It would be naive to proceed without trying to understand these risks. Glenn and I were concerned about a basic subpoena that would slow down our work. A material-witness claim is something they could've thrown at us. Or they could go farther, and some people in Congress were saying that they should, with this use of the word "accomplice."

I don't think the risks were trivial. There were probably people sitting around at the Justice Department trying to decide what they could do legally to both stop the publication and to set a precedent that would make this kind of reporting—to intimidate us.

Friedersdorf: When did you first conceive of yourself as taking risks to do your work?

Poitras: Getting on the plane to Baghdad. I talked to my producer, wondering, "Is this worth it?" You have to decide that the meaning of the work outweighs the risks. In Baghdad, the moments of greatest fear were when I felt lost as far as where the work was going—you risk your life, but you don't know what the end result will be. When I started to believe in the meaning of the story I was trying to tell, that belief somehow trumped the fear. And I've always spent time with people who were taking more risks than I was in reporting these scenarios. Yes, there was risk reporting in Iraq in 2004, but what I saw the Iraqis risking ... there was no comparison.

There was a lot of risk getting on the plane to Hong Kong too. Things could have happened differently. I'd been corresponding for five months with this anonymous source, and I was aware of the danger early on. I thought, this is the most dangerous reporting I'll ever do. The people that will be angry will be the most powerful people in the world. That felt very acute to me, perhaps because of my experience being put on the watch list. Glenn had a fresh kind of energy. He was thinking more about the risks that Snowden was taking that were so much bigger than ours.

Friedersdorf: As you've learned about the Iraq War, Guantanamo, and the surveillance state, even as you watch the rest of the media covering these subjects, do you have thoughts on that coverage?

Poitras:  The media totally failed in the Iraq War. They were cheerleading for the invasion, not asking tough questions. Guantanamo was the same. The fact that major newspapers did not use the word torture is staggering. That's not news, and it's not what the press should be doing.

The culture of fear has been very destructive to the press. It's improved a little since we've gotten more distance. Then again, the stuff around ISIS feels very familiar.

But I do think there's been a shift. When the WikiLeaks story broke, something about it opened up some antagonistic reporting that looked at the government in a different sort of way. Part of that is due to the way it happened. There wasn't one organization that got the information. They decided to partner with multiple news outlets. If The New York Times wasn't going to report something, Der Spiegel would. That raises the bar, when you know that the same story is going to be covered by multiple international outlets. In terms of the Snowden reporting, there was a lot of fear at the institutional level. The fact that Glenn was so aggressive, that he would've walked away from The Guardian, helped. In retrospect there's a lot of appreciation of the reporting, but at the time there was a lot of fear, including The Washington Post not sending someone to Hong Kong. That's a lot of fear.

Friedersdorf: There's a scene near the end of the film where Glenn Greenwald alerts Edward Snowden to a second whistleblower. We can look back and see stories based on information from this person. Will there be more stories sourced to this person?

Poitras: First, I'd just like to correct—it's not about a second—I mean, there are multiple sources. And you have sources, everybody has sources, so this frenzy, we should question that as a framing. But I would just say there are some things revealed at the end of the film and that reporting is ongoing. Beyond that, I can't address it, other than to say why I was interested, or why I wanted to end the film on that note, is to have sort of an unsettling ending. There's a danger of a narrative feeling too contained, and it was important to push it outside of the frame.

Friedersdorf: What are your thoughts on releasing more footage of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong?

Poitras: The footage is extraordinary, and there are these limitations of doing long-form narrative. I can't ask the viewer to sit down and watch a 20-hour movie. It just doesn't work that way. So I have to make choices, but I don't want those choices to foreclose the possibility that there's other material that I want to release. For instance, Glenn's first day-one interview with Snowden, it's actually mind-blowing.

And so I'm trying to think.

At some point I'd like to release it in a way where people could decide how much time to invest in it, maybe not a movie where you watch from beginning to end but where you could enter and see however much you want. There are constraints to what a feature-length film could support, and there is what I consider some other extraordinary source material that I definitely want to release.

Some people have the idea that a documentary is just a series of interviews. But there's a difference between watching people make decisions as events unfold, with no idea what will happen next, and how they later narrate their own experience.

The Hong Kong section particularly has a palpable quality of watching a historical moment unfold. There's actually a record of it. And people have responded to that.The next big project I know I'm committed to is a museum piece at the Whitney Museum in Spring 2016. It relates to the outtake question, the Snowden footage, the War on Terror, but done in a gallery context, where I'm not bound by the same narrative and plot constraints of doing a long-form documentary.