Keen Observation

10 February 2015 Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Keen Observation

Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Ed#477, February 2015

Laura Poitras points a camera at United States government surveillance in her controversial new documentary, Citizenfour.

When US documentarian Laura Poitras began working on a film about surveillance, she had a wealth of firsthand material to draw on. In 2006 she found herself on the US Government’s infamous watchlist. Every time she went overseas, border agents stopped her upon her return, seizing her laptop, mobile phone and notes. She would be detained and interrogated for hours.

Her crime? She’d made My Country, My Country, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the occupation of Iraq. She eventually relocated to Berlin to protect herself and her next project, The Oath (2012), which looked at Guantanamo Bay through the experiences of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard.

As it happened, what Poitras went through then was only scratching the surface. The scoop of a lifetime arrived in her inbox in early 2013, when she started receiving encrypted emails from someone calling themselves ‘Citizenfour’. They claimed to be “a senior government employee in the intelligence community”, who had access to the classified documents that would reveal the true powers of the National Security Agency (NSA).

“I didn’t have a clue. I don’t think anybody did,” says Poitras. “That was a very secretive agency that nobody really knew much about.” The anonymous source turned out to be Edward Snowden, whom the filmmaker aided in becoming one of the most significant whistleblowers in US history.

Poitras’ new documentary, Citizenfour, is the final instalment in her trilogy about post 9/11 America. Most of the film takes place in a hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald spent a week interviewing Snowden and publishing articles disclosing details of the US Government’s data collection. The drama of this journalistic encounter became a way of articulating some of the domestic ramifications of the ‘War on Terror’.

Almost two years after this initial meeting, Citizenfour has become about more than Snowden’s revelations. “Here was somebody who was willing to put their life on the line to reveal this information, and to me that’s a bigger question,” explains Poitras.

“What are the United States doing as a country? Why would somebody take those kinds of risks? What’s happening in the political context that it’s becoming whistleblowers that are the ones who are holding the government accountable, rather than the people we elect?”

Even within the secluded hotel, Snowden goes to what may seem like paranoid lengths to maintain the privacy of those present. He covers himself in a shroud that he jokingly calls his “magic mantle of power” whenever he types passwords, lest anyone zoom in on Poitras’ footage. He unplugs the hotel phone because it can be tapped into as a listening device, regardless of whether there’s a call. Such moments drive home the government’s potential reach far more than facts and figures about metadata ever could.

Fears about such monitoring are usually countered with retorts like, “What does it matter if you’ve got nothing to hide?” But Poitras points out that it’s not just a matter of privacy. “It’s a real threat to democracy,” she explains. “We see over and over that governments are collecting information about their citizens. It’s often used in terms of control. For instance, in the US context of the civil rights movement, the FBI were spying on Martin Luther King. People who voice dissent become targets in these kinds of scenarios.”

All of Poitras’ documentaries can be described as cinéma-vérité, where the camera acts as a witness to events unfolding in real time. You can see this in her astounding debut Flag Wars (2003), which documents conflicts between middle-class white gay couples moving into a predominantly black, working-class suburb in Ohio. This observational method allowed Poitras to paint a complex portrait of clashes over race, class and sexuality.

In Citizenfour, though, it’s not possible for Poitras to remain the objective documentary maker. The immense risks involved in telling this story, both for herself and for Snowden, render her a player. But Poitras still felt the need to tell it, much as she had with the trilogy’s previous two instalments.

“I’m a US citizen, and I’m compelled I think as a citizen, but also as somebody who sees things that I think are dangerous paths my country has gone down in response to the attacks of 9/11. Surveillance isn’t the only thing: there’s the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, legalising torture and black sites… These are really dark chapters in American history.”

Citizenfour has just been nominated for an Oscar. If Poitras wins, she can place the statuette beside her Peabody and MacArthur Genius Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize she and Greenwald won for their work in the Guardian.

Such accolades mean the filmmaker is no longer stopped at every border, but they come with other costs. “There’s certain ways of working under the radar that I’m no longer able to do. I’m used to being able to go into a place and I operate my own camera and I can keep a low profile. I think those days of being able to do that are over.”


» Rebecca Harkins-Cross is Film Editor at The Big Issue.

This article appears in Ed#477 of The Big Issue magazine. On sale now, just $6 from your vendor.