Laura Poitras was hoarse the day I interviewed her for CITIZENFOUR. Her remarkable eye-witness documentary about Edward Snowden leaking NSA secrets to the press resulted in everyone wanting to talk to her. When we spoke, though, her dedication to bringing the truth to light was intact.
I started by asking what it was like to be the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, among other honors, and to be on the Homeland Security Watch List simultaneously. We moved on to the leaps of faith involved in making her documentaries in general, and believing Snowden in particular when he first contacted her anonymously as the Citizen Four of the title. When I asked about the odd sort of balance her life has between faith and paranoia, she schooled me with a precis on what paranoia is and isn’t, and why she doesn’t succumb to it. A remarkable outlook from someone who consulted lawyers before meeting with Snowden, and was then able to take their advice with remarkable good humor.
We went on to talk about the implications of an antique Espionage Act on future whistleblowers, and the steps being taken in the court system to overcome them. It’s emblematic of her film as a whole: exposing wrongdoing, and then seeing the positive results, albeit slow in coming, of one person’s courage to speak up, and another person’s courage in documenting it.
CITIZEN FOUR is a startling, incisive, and very human documentary about Edward Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on NSA surveillance of the civilian population, and how Poitras herself became a part of that story. Filmed in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden leaked the documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, it is a portrait of an unlikely hero, an everyman who decided that speaking truth to power was more important than any element of his own life and security. The film is nothing less than history unfolding in front of a camera, and as such becomes not just a record of one man standing up for what he believes, but part of history itself. CITIZEN FOUR is the third in Poitras’ trilogy of documentaries examining life in the post 9/11 word. The first two being MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY considered life for Iraqis under American occupation, and THE OATH, about two Yemeni brothers, one a driver for Bin Laden, the other imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. Both earned her awards, including an Oscar™ nomination. She herself is the recipient of the Pulitzer and Polk Prizes, as well as receiving a MacArthur Genius Award. She was also placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list.
CITIZENFOUR is the third, along with MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY and THE OATH, in Poitras’ trilogy about the post-9/11 world. I can only hope that we see her next trilogy soon. In the meantime, she has joined forces with Glenn Greenwald, her collaborator in breaking the Snowden story along with The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill, andJeremy Scahill (DIRTY WARS) to form TheIntercept.com where she can continue to break news, as well as understanding the human consequences of government policies through people and through images as well as words. And that the role of journalism should be adversarial to power.