“It was clear for me, when we started communicating over email, that if he was legitimate we were going to anger some of the most powerful people in the world, and people who would try to make this stop. These are powerful institutions and they have an enormous reach,” she added.
“Citizenfour,” opens in select U.S. movie theaters on Friday. It takes its title from the moniker Snowden used when he first approached Poitras through encrypted emails with a view to exposing how the NSA gathers data on the Internet activities and phone calls of millions of ordinary Americans and dozens of world leaders.
Poitras shared a Pulitzer prize for her role in publicizing that information, and “Citizenfour” is being tipped by awards watchers for an Oscar nomination in January. Variety called it “an extraordinary portrait” of Snowden, while Salon.com described it as “an urgent, gripping real-life spy story that should be seen by every American.”
There’s a reason Poitras is on the Homeland Security “watch list,” why she resides in Berlin, where she can make films without government intrusion. She documents hard truths. They sting. Citizenfour, the piping-hot end product of her Hong Kong rendezvous, is the end of Poitras’s self-described post-9/11 trilogy: 2006’s My Country, My Country painted a portrait of average Iraqi life under U.S. occupation; 2010′s The Oath follows two Yemeni men, both former Osama bin Laden employees, as they navigate life outside al-Qaeda; Citizenfour centers on Snowden and blossoms outward, a disparaging look at N.S.A. conduct akin to a John le Carré adaptation.
VF.com spoke to Poitras on making her impossible-to-imagine documentary, befriending, understanding, and filming Snowden as the 21st century’s most prominent whistleblowing went down in real time:
After the Department of Homeland Security put you on its watch list, you settled in Berlin to compile your film on surveillance. What was your biggest fear? What would they actually do?
Before I was contacted by Snowden in 2013, I was stopped and detained every time I crossed the U.S. border. The border agents would take my notebooks and photocopy them, take my receipts and photocopy them, take my credit cards, ask me questions about where I had been, what I had done. This becomes an invasive process at some point [laughs]. I started becoming more careful about what I carried across the border. Agents would say to me, “If you don’t answer our questions, we’ll find out our answers on your electronics.” A pretty straight up threat. O.K., if you’re going to find out your answers on my electronics, I’m going to stop taking my electronics across the border.
Laura Poitras’s film shows the first extensive interviews with Edward Snowden, conducted in his hotel room in Hong Kong when he first revealed his information to reporter Glenn Greenwald: Snowden contacted him under the handle Citizenfour. Greenwald wrote about it for Salon, in his book No Place to Hide and for this newspaper. Snowden risked his neck, revealing that despite official statements to the contrary, the US and the UK were widely using their ability to eavesdrop upon every phone call, every email, every internet search, every keystroke. The pre-emptive mining of data has gone beyond suspicion of terrorist activity. As Snowden says: “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” and a martial law for intercepting telecommunication is being created by stealth. This is despite the bland denials of every official up to and including President Obama, whose supercilious claim to have been investigating the issue before the Snowden revelations has been brutally exposed by this film.
Snowden himself seems notably calm and reasonable. Where Julian Assange is mercurial, Snowden is geeky and imperturbable, with a laid-back voice that sounds like that of Seth Rogen. Pressure that would have caused anyone else to crack seems to have have no real effect on Snowden, and he appears unemotional even as he reveals how he had to leave his partner, Lindsay Mills, in the dark. (She is now living with him in Russia, where he is in exile, a country whose own record on civil liberties provide a scalding irony.)
There are moments of white-knuckle paranoia. The interview is interrupted by a continuous alarm bell; Snowden calls down to reception, who tell him it’s a routine fire drill. Snowden is satisfied by the explanation, but disconnects the phone in case it is bugged. When he types key passwords into his laptop he covers his head and arms in a bizarre shroud, like an old-fashioned photographer, so he can’t be filmed. This is what he calls his “magic mantle of power”. It looks absurd, but it isn’t precisely melodramatic, and Snowden seems as if he both knows what he is doing and appreciates the absurdity of it all.
Meanwhile, governmental forces are ranged against him – and against ordinary citizens making a stand against snooping. Poitras shows us a scene from a US court case in which AT&T phone customers took action against having their affairs pried into. A sycophantic, bow-tied lawyer for the government tries to suggest that a court is not the proper place to discuss the matter. When a plain-speaking judge rebuked this weasel, I felt like cheering.
So what else can be done? There is a funny moment when Citizenfour shows how German chancellor Angela Merkel is far from amused at having her mobile phone conversations listened to by the NSA. It was an exquisite moment of diplomatic froideur and possibly did more to make Obama take this seriously than anything else.