‘Citizenfour’ director Laura Poitras on making her Edward Snowden documentary

The film seems like a sure bet for the Oscars in February.

The documentary “Citizenfour” offers a front-row seat to history happening in real time, as filmmaker Laura Poitras captures the initial Hong Kong hotel room meetings with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

amNewYork spoke with Poitras about the film, which is currently in theaters and seems like a sure bet for the Oscars in February.


Has Edward Snowden seen the movie? What does he think of it?

I went to Moscow and screened it for him and he’s very supportive. I mean, he’s also very shy because, as he says in the film, he didn’t want to be the story. I’ve kind of made him a little bit the story. But he’s supportive.


Why’d you take that approach?

For me, I was just interested [in] why would somebody so young, 29 years old, put their life on the line to reveal this information. So that’s why I felt he should be the story. I’ve always made films that stay close to the protagonist, so this is very consistent with that. Through individuals we understand bigger issues.


He’s a divisive figure, of course. Have you found that the film is inspiring people to reconsider their thoughts on him?

I have. There have been people, who have are just like, ‘Wow, this is not what I expect,’ or ‘This is not the picture that has been painted,’ so I think it does have that effect.


Is that important to you?

Yeah, it’s not the goal. I’ve been making films a long time, I take a lot of risks to make films, I spend a lot of time. I’m not trying to tip the scales of public opinion. That’s not why I make movies. I make movies to say something about the world that I believe is important to know. But I’m not surprised that’s the effect because I do believe that he is motivated because he felt the public should know these things and he did take personal risks to bring this information forward, so I’m not surprised it changes how people think about him.


To what extent, if any, do you think the presence of your camera in that hotel room changed the tone or the tenor of the discussions and revelations?

I’m not sure. I’ve been making this kind of documentary for a long time, where I’m filming things that are really happening, and when the stakes are high, people are thinking about what the stakes are. In this case, he basically crossed the point of no return. And his goal then was to tell the journalists he had gathered, ‘This is what you need to know and this is why it matters.’ And so I think, given the risk he had taken, [that] mattered a lot more than that my camera was there.


Can you expand on the notion of understanding bigger issues through individuals? How does Snowden facilitate that here?

The films that I’ve been doing that try to document the post-9/11 era really do follow individuals. And individuals who are directly impacted, not just people who have opinions but people who are living the history and embodying the history. So all the films stay close to the protagonist and through them you understand bigger issues. So for me, yes it’s a film about NSA surveillance and the threat that it poses to democracies. It’s about the NSA but it’s also about people — not just Snowden, but others like [NSA whistle-blower] William Binney — people who are willing to take personal sacrifices because they think the government is going in the wrong direction, that there’s some kind of a moral drift away from fundamental principles of rule of law. I think he saw that and other people have seen that, other whistle-blowers, and have said, ‘Is this really the country we want to be?’ And also believe that these are not decisions that should be made a secret. That’s been consistent with Snowden is the government shouldn’t make these decisions a secret. The public has a right to know what their government is doing.


The film plays like a classical Hollywood thriller. To what extent can the tropes of fictional narrative films inform your nonfiction work?

For me, I’m a participant in this film, it’s clear that it’s told from a subjective point of view. The truth is, is that for me it felt like a thriller. I got contacted out of the blue by some anonymous person who then told me things that were somewhat mind-blowing and then told me to go to another country and meet him. And so, all those kinds of things we’re trying to communicate through the use of cinema. The tunnel that we begin the film with; I felt like I was in a tunnel doing this reporting and going through this experience. We’re trying to use cinema to describe a reality. I think the growth of the surveillance that we’ve seen post-9/11 is frightening, so hopefully it has that kind of tone to it.

Robert Levin