Capturing Snowden: How Laura Poitras made “Citizenfour”

After helping break one of the biggest news stories of last year, Laura Poitras (pictured) pulls back the curtain on how she did it with Citizenfour, her insider look at whistleblower Edward Snowden. Here, she tells realscreen how she remained under the radar.
November 13, 2014

Photo: Olaf Blecker
After helping break one of the biggest news stories of last year, Laura Poitras (pictured) pulls back the curtain on how she did it with Citizenfour, her insider look at whistleblower Edward Snowden. Here, she tells realscreen how she remained under the radar.

“I’m not the story here,” says Citizenfour – aka Edward Snowden – early on in his first, now-infamous June 2013 Hong Kong interview.

The whistleblower is trying to ensure that the focus will remain on his disclosures about America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and its controversial surveillance policies, rather than on himself, once the news breaks. But once Pandora’s Box has been opened, the world will demand a human face to accompany the story.

Seeing that moment unfold in Citizenfour, a high-profile documentary on the whistleblower which opened theatrically in the U.S. late in October, carries an added significance because his words echo the position of the person pointing the video camera at him: director Laura Poitras.

The shy, 51-year-old documentarian has never been fully comfortable in the spotlight. But that is where she has found herself since journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote an article for Salon in 2012 reporting that she has faced repeated detainment and harassment from Department of Homeland Security agents since releasing her 2010 doc The Oath.

Much has happened since then. The Bostonian filmmaker – who now lives in Berlin – began work on what she billed as the third film in a trilogy of docs looking at America post 9/11; she was awarded a US$500,000 MacArthur ‘genius’ grant to further her work; and – most significantly – she has helped bring Snowden’s NSA revelations to the world, earning a share of a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting efforts.

It was her increased visibility and her placement on a watch list that first led Snowden to approach her – and confide in her – via Internet backchannels, thus radically altering the course of her planned third movie.

“I was thinking, ‘What’s happening, what am I reading, and is this true?’” Poitras recalls of the first messages she received from Snowden. “‘And if it’s true, it’s extraordinary.’ Receiving these letters was like, ‘OK, I’ve got a new thread to follow. Let’s see where it goes.’”

edward snowden (left) and glenn greenwald in "citizenfour"

Edward Snowden (left) and Glenn Greenwald in Citizenfour

Though skilled as a documentary maker, handling Snowden as a source was first and foremost an act of journalism. To aid what would be a massive undertaking, Poitras enlisted the help of Guardian writers Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who travelled with her to Hong Kong for the historic first meeting with the whistleblower.

“I was certainly nervous,” Poitras recalls. “I had encrypted drives, one to back up and move outside of the hotel room in case the room was raided… I travelled with a printer, because I wanted to be able to print questions and I didn’t just want to go to a public printer.

“I prepared to be able to work in a situation where if something were to happen I wouldn’t lose all of the footage.”

After the Snowden story broke and the whistleblower fled to Russia, that sense of precaution intensified and followed Poitras to Berlin, where she began assembling the film with editor Mathilde Bonnefoy.

Security safeguards were stringent.

“We did definitely want to keep it under-the-radar; that was important,” the filmmaker recalls. “Even before Snowden, we were cutting on Avid, and each of the systems we were cutting the footage on was air gapped – which means that it wasn’t connected to the Internet – so you couldn’t exploit it from the outside.

“All the footage was kept on encrypted drives,” she adds, “passwords were tightly controlled, very few people had them, and even within an encrypted drive there were certain volumes that were more heavily encrypted for the things that we thought were more sensitive, which only myself and my editor had passwords for.”

Beyond those steps, cell phones were often kept out of the room; the circle of people working on the film was kept deliberately small; and as an added precaution, Poitras kept back-ups of her work in a safe at the offices of German newspaper Der Spiegel.

“Basically we wanted to have a scenario whereby, if any government raided the editing room, they wouldn’t get anything from the drives,” she recalls. “That was one of our security protocols.”

Poitras says that teaching herself counter-surveillance measures has been “a process of learning” from individuals she has worked with, such as hacker Jacob Appelbaum and former NSA official William Binney. She says she has also learned much about encryption and security from Snowden himself.

“He’s the one who taught me how to use an operating system called Tails, which is probably one of the more secure ways you can communicate over encryption,” she adds. “I already knew quite a bit and then learned more as I needed to, and then had to teach people.”

The other key security measure Poitras employed was surrounding herself with lawyers. She had a personal lawyer working with her in connection with Der Spiegel, looking at “the legal risk of the UK issuing an extradition warrant for me” on account of her reporting on British intelligence organization GCHQ. And in the U.S., lawyer Victor Kovner was assessing the film and its disclosures on First Amendment grounds.

the nsa headquarters in maryland, as shown in "citizenfour" (photo: trevor paglen)

The NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as shown in Citizenfour (Photo: Trevor Paglen)

The filmmaker also relied on the judgment of her editorial team at news website The Intercept for public interest assessment of several key revelations – now public – that appear in Citizenfour: firstly the existence of a “core secrets” government program called Sentry Eagle; secondly, that the U.S. government has 1.2 million people on various watch lists; and thirdly, the confirmation that Greenwald now has a second whistleblower source in the upper echelons of U.S. intelligence.

“What we had to do with our distributors and funding partners is basically say, ‘There are things in the film that you’re not going to know about until the very end,’” Poitras says.”‘But you can talk to these lawyers and you can talk to my editor at The Intercept, and they will provide you the information – without the content and details – to feel confident about any exposure the film might bring.’

“But I did have to tell the people that I was working with that we would be breaking news, and that that news would go through a process that would be separate from how the documentary is vetted for typical errors and omissions.”

After arriving as a late addition to the main slate of the New York Film Festival in September, Citizenfour hit various fall festivals across Europe (including the London Film Festival, CPH:DOX and DOK Leipzig), and received a limited U.S. release in late October. “I decided early that I wanted to release the film soon after we premiered, so that there’s no lag time between premiering the film and selling it,” Poitras recalls.

The doc – which has an assortment of high-profile backers including RADiUS-TWC, HBO Documentary Films, Participant Media, Cinereach, the Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and BRITDOC – is dense, heady and jargon-filled at times, with references to top-secret programs such as Tempora, XKeyscore, SSO and PRISM.

Yet its boldness has led it to become something of an October surprise in this year’s Oscars race, where it should almost certainly earn a nomination for best documentary feature. But beyond its immediate industry impact, the film could serve as something of a technological primer for a certain style of high-risk documentary making going forward.

Poitras becomes flustered at the suggestion that she might become a figurehead for whistleblower filmmakers in the 21st century.

“I don’t know that I’m going to become… I don’t feel that… I think maybe I’d be more of a figurehead for how to secure source material, use encryption,” she says.

“[Citizenfour] will probably be used more as a case study of that – how do you protect source material. And I’ve definitely been eager to push that message – that journalists have an obligation to be careful with the information that they’re entrusted with, given what governments are capable of collecting.”

Poitras has already given thought to a hypothetical situation in which Snowden could return to the U.S. and face charges of violating the 1917 Espionage Act, leading to a subpoena to hand over all of her Citizenfour outtakes.

“That’s a decision I made a long time ago: of course I wouldn’t,” she says firmly. “I would not give it to them, and they wouldn’t be able to get it, because it’s all encrypted.”

She adds that she feels encouraged by the precedents set by other documentary lawsuits, in particular Ken and Sarah Burns’s The Central Park Five, which successfully argued journalistic privilege to prevent the city of New York from subpoenaing outtakes for that film.

“That was really good precedent – I was glad that they fought that and won,” she says. “You can’t have sources that take the risks that they do in providing information if you’re going to testify – absolutely not.”

Citizenfour evolved to become a film largely about Snowden, with the doc’s entire second act focusing on the filmmaker’s Hong Kong meeting with him, but there still remains the question of what Poitras will do with all the material she gathered from 2010 to 2013 – before her life-changing encounter with the American maverick.

“The other footage will find its way into another film,” she reveals. “After I returned from Hong Kong and we started doing the first assemblies, it was clear that I’d really shot two films – and that [this] one I was clearly a participant in.

“I feel all of my films are sort of done in a cinema vérité way, where I don’t actually know where the story’s going. But typically I tend to follow these things, not really knowing where they will take me.”

  • Man on Wire director James Marsh will present Poitras with DOC NYC’s inaugural Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence tomorrow (November 14) at a ceremony in New York.
  • Citizenfour will screen at DOC NYC at 7 p.m. on November 18 (with Poitras attending) and at 4 p.m. on November 20.
  • This article first appeared as the cover feature in the current November/December 2014 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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