Susanna Fritscher and Jean-Christophe Norman
Moment – Meriç Algün Ringborg
Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2014 exhibition
Vienna Biennale 2015: Ideas For Change
FEATURED ARTIST: Brion Nuda Rosch Rosch’s assemblages—made with…
Tobias Madison at Freedman Fitzpatrick
CITIZENFOUR: An interview with Laura Poitras
Craig Hubert: How does it feel to finally have the film out?
Laura Poitras: It feels a little surreal. We had a really small circle of people who knew what was in the film, and now I’m sitting down and talking to strangers, and they knew what happened in the hotel room. It’s a bit of an adjustment period, but it’s also great.
CH: Was there sadness in letting it go?
LP: It’s not sad, no. I think it’s more of a relief. We didn’t rush the film in any way but we didn’t want to hang onto it any longer than needed. We wanted to get it into the world as soon as we could. It’s the right time.
CH: The film began before Snowden ever reached out to you. Can you talk about the origins of CITIZENFOUR, and where your research began on surveillance?
LP: I started shooting the film in the spring of 2011, and I was interested in a number of themes; I was interested in journalism, the surveillance state, the work that Wikileaks was doing at that time, in the wake of the disclosures they had made, and how that had changed journalism. But I wasn’t quite sure what the focus would be — often times I have some general themes and am not quite sure how it will all come together. Anyway, I made a trip down to Rio de Janeiro to meet with Glenn [Greenwald], because I was really interested in his writing and the fact that he was doing this influential reporting totally off the grid, this sort of outsider journalism. I just thought, that’s really interesting. I’m going to document that, without knowing where that would fit into a larger film. So I just went, and it’s actually the very first scene in the film. Looking back on it, it’s pretty interesting because Glenn was in the middle of writing about whistleblowers when I was down there, which then becomes the theme of the film. At that time, I also started filming with William Binney from the NSA and started documenting the Utah data center that was being built.
CH: Why film the construction site?
LP: I’m a verité filmmaker, so I like to film things happening in real time, and I thought, well, the NSA is building the biggest data repository, let’s film it. It will be a good record to have. Around that time I also started doing some filming with Julian Assange and Wikieaks, and Jacob Applebaum, who’s a privacy expert and someone who trains activists and is a journalist. So I was following similar themes that come into the final film. Then I did the short film on Bill Binney, for the New York Times, and I think that’s probably how I got on Snowden’s radar, I guess. It was published in August 2012, and then I started receiving anonymous emails in January 2013.
CH: There was a period of five months before you traveled to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. During the time, was there a sense that this anonymous person would end up finding a way into the film?
LP: I wasn’t approaching it in that way. I would have made the film if Snowden never entered my life, but I would contextualize it a bit differently. I’d been in correspondence with an anonymous source for five months and what they were telling me they had evidence of, and the risk they were taking, was really shocking, and occupied a lot of my thoughts. When it became possible, or when he agreed to a meeting, there was no way I wasn’t going. I wasn’t thinking of it as part of the film or not part of the film. I knew I was going to document it. That’s just what I do. At that point I had seen documents, so I knew the magnitude, and I knew this a big deal, and a big deal for journalism in terms of the scope of what it would reveal.
Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, in CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, 2014)
CH: I want to jump ahead, following the meeting with Snowden in Hong Kong that takes up a large chunk of the film. Once you had this material and returned to the film you were making, did your process change?
LP: When I was in Hong Kong, I definitely felt my role was as a documentary filmmaker and that I was documenting what was happening, which was the reporting that Glenn and Ewen were doing. I wasn’t spending time looking at documents or thinking about any of the print reporting. After leaving, when I got back to Berlin, it became quite obvious that my obligation now was to make sure that the reporting continues. There were few people that had access to the documents — there was Glenn in Rio, and then I had it, so that’s when I teamed up with Der Spiegel newspaper to start working with them. I shifted my focus from editing to reporting, but I was working with an editor who started watching the footage that I shot, and she was processing that while I was reporting. I’ve been doing this long enough that I understood that what I shot in Hong Kong was a unique historical record, but I also knew that I wanted to continue filming the fallout. So I was filming, reporting, and editing. All those things were happening simultaneously.
CH: I noticed in the credits that the artist Jenny Perlin is listed as one of the editors on the film.
LP: Yeah. She’s a friend and actually one of the few people who were in the know about what was going on while I was being contacted, before I went to Hong Kong. She was in Berlin, she and her family were there on a sabbatical, so we hung out a lot in Berlin and she helped out with assistant editing and other stuff. She’s awesome.
CH: Can you talk a little more about the collaborators who worked with you on the film?
LP: This was a huge, amazing collaborative experience, in terms of people who were willing to take risks to work on the project — there were some scary times where we thought there was potential that somebody would raid the editing room to get the footage. I had an amazing editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy. Did you ever see Run Lola Run ? She cut that, so she’s a kickass editor and gave so much to the project. It’s really our creative collaboration that you see on the screen. Her husband, Dirk Wilutzky, is the producer, and they just created this safe space in Berlin. We kept the media away, we kept everyone away, so we could just do what we needed to do. We had a really tight space that we definitely kept — it was clear that we were breaking news, and we could say, none of that matters, what do we want to do to tell the film and keep this a place where we’re not being reactive? Because the danger is if you start to react to what the news is doing you’ll make something that won’t have legs. I’m not trying to break news with the film. I’m trying to tell a story that’s going to resonate in five or ten years.
CH: Even so, minutes after the film premiered most of what was discussed about the film was the news it broke, that Snowden was living with his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, and the possible confirmation of a new leaker.
LP: Like I said, we’re not trying to break news with the film, but both of those things are really part of the narrative and have to do with Snowden’s actions. No matter what was leaked, or what kind of disclosures made, at the end it was as much about the story not being over. There’s not just one, not just two, but other courageous whistleblowers who are coming forward to expose things that they think the public has a right to know. It’s not just about a closure on Snowden’s narrative. In terms on Lindsay, I had heard that she had joined him, and I thought this was important to include in the film because you see him in Hong Kong – as the disclosures start to hit and as it becomes a big, huge story – at the same time she gets a knock on the door. In that moment, you really understand the personal sacrifice that he made and, after he revealed his identity, the media just ripped into her in a really horrible, aggressive way. I felt like the fact that she joined him related to all that and seemed like a really powerful statement about their relationship, and her ability to navigate what was probably a really difficult time.
Edward Snowden and Lindsay Mills, in CITIZENFOUR (Laura Poitras, 2014)
CH: It was handled beautifully, and provides one of the most moving images in the film — the two of them cooking together, filmed outside their kitchen window from a distance. It says everything that needs to be said about the moment without saying much at all.
LP: I wanted to show maximum respect for their privacy and not open up some new chapter that would feed the mill that’s already been trapped in.
CH: You mentioned the other courageous whistleblowers that are now coming forward because of the risks Edward Snowden took. I wanted to ask about Snowden’s influence on art, where surveillance has now become a major topic for artists of different mediums to explore.
LP: I’d love for you to send me some names of who is doing good stuff. I’ve been in a bit of a tunnel. I think it’s awesome if it starts to funnel its way down, but I’m always a little bit skeptical if the art world is following more fashion trends. I’m so excited that Trevor Paglen’s work is in this film, for me he’s a total inspiration as an artist. He took lots of time off to film these sites that we include in the film, and he’s the real deal. If you want to look at art that’s looking at surveillance, Trevor is the person who’s setting the bar for everyone else. But yeah, these are always tough topics because the art world stuff can be somewhat trend driven and not substance driven. I actually consider myself an artist, and identify as an artist, but also identify as a documentary filmmaker and am interested in real world consequences and real world impacts and real world risks. Some art engages that and some art seems to try to float on the surface.
CH: You’re putting together one of the inaugural exhibitions at the Whitney Museum’s new space in 2016. Have you started work on that?
LP: It’s the thing that I know is going to be the next big project I do. I want to take a little bit of time and space so that I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that anybody expects me to do, and figure out how I want to explore it. It’s on my mind. Now that this project is done, as soon as I can carve out a little space to think about what direction I want to take that in. But one of the things I’m super excited about is ways of working with themes that I’m interested in that aren’t so bound to plot, because they are such brutal decisions you have to make when you’re looking at plot. For instance, in the Hong Kong section of this film, the first day of our meeting was a four-hour that I filmed. Obviously we can’t sustain a four-hour interview in a documentary, so you have to make these brutal choices about what you need to say here, and that means massive amounts of material can’t be contained within a linear narrative. I’m interested in having much more non-linear relationships to an audience, where the audience gets to decide how much time they want to invest in something, rather than me saying, sorry, you’re only going to get six minutes of this four-hour interview.
CH: Can a film say something about Snowden that words cannot?
LP: I totally believe in the power of images to inform in a different way than words inform. It allows you to speak in more emotional terms and with more subtext that give people an emotional connection to issues rather than just an intellectual connection. There’s a lots of information we have about surveillance, but when you see somebody who’s willing to risk their life to expose it then you have to factor in, OK, that’s a pretty extreme thing to do. It will have a different impact.-->