Growing up in Boston, Laura Poitras planned to become a chef, spending years as a cook at L’Espalier, a French restaurant. After high school, however, she moved to San Francisco and became interested in experimental filmmaking. After studying at both San Francisco Art Institute and The New School, she decided to pursue a life of filmmaking.
But like everyone else, she didn’t know how much September 11, 2001 would change her life. Poitras said, living in New York at that time, there was a sense that people could have done anything. When her country’s choice became to invade Iraq, Poitras, who had no prior experience in conflict zones, decided to travel to Iraq in 2004 to document the occupation.
Shortly into her visit, she was granted permission to visit Abu Ghraib to film a visit by Baghdad City Council members. A Sunni doctor, Riyadh al-Adhadh, was one of the Iraqis visiting the prison and Poitras filmed a powerful scene of him with prisoners who are shouting that they shouldn’t be locked up.
Dr. Al-Adhadh invited Poitras to visit his clinic when they returned to Iraq. His family’s struggles in Baghdad became the focus of her documentary, My Country, My Country.
“I had come out of this very experimental background and I really felt like I would spend my career making small, essay-type films. I’m a pretty shy person; it’s not that comfortable for me to enter into people’s lives and it never occurred to me that I could do this kind of documentary where you’re really following someone’s journey very closely. I learned the magic of that during My Country, My Country,” Poitras said.
The film was released in 2006 and earned an Oscar nomination. In June 2006, she was detained at Newark International Airport before boarding a flight to Israel, where she was traveling to speak at a screening of her film. Upon her return to the U.S., she was held for two hours before being able to re-enter the country. The next month, when she landed in Vienna on her way to Bosnia, she was paged over the airport loudspeaker and told to go to the security desk. From there, she was taken to another building nearby, where her luggage was examined.
“They took my bags and checked them,” Poitras told The New York Times. “They asked me what I was doing, and I said I was showing a movie in Sarajevo about the Iraq war. And then I sort of befriended the security guy. I asked what was going on. He said: ‘You’re flagged. You have a threat score that is off the Richter scale. You are at 400 out of 400.’ I said, ‘Is this a scoring system that works throughout all of Europe, or is this an American scoring system?’ He said. ‘No, this is your government that has this and has told us to stop you.’”
When she landed at JFK, she was met at the gate by two armed law enforcement agents and taken to a room for questioning.
“It’s a total violation,” Poitras said. “That’s how it feels. They are interested in information that pertains to the work I am doing that’s clearly private and privileged. It’s an intimidating situation when people with guns meet you when you get off an airplane.” Poitras has never received an explanation for why she is on a watch list.
It is not a practice that has stopped or slowed for Poitras. In 2010, she made her second documentary, The Oath, the second film–My Country, My Country being the first–of what is now dubbed as the “9/11 trilogy.”
The Oath focuses on two Yemeni men caught up in America’s War on Terror. Both Abu Jandal and Salim Ahmed Hamdan worked for Osama bin Laden. Jandal, who is now a taxi driver in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, worked as a bodyguard to bin Laden. Hamdan was bin Laden’s driver but was captured in 2001 during the invasion in Afghanistan. In 2002 he was transported to Guantanamo Bay and was the first defendant to be tried in the U.S. military tribunals established by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The two men became brothers-in-law after marrying sisters. Poitras shows both the action in Hamdan’s trial and Jandal’s life in Yemen, especially his conversations with his son and other young Muslim students.
The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Excellence in Cinematography Award. The film also played at the Berlin Film Festival and South by Southwest.
Prior to her 9/11 trilogy, Poitras co-directed, produced, and shot Flag Wars, which premiered in 2003. The film focused on the gentrification of a neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. It earned a Peabody Award and Best Documentary at South by Southwest. Flag Wars was also nominated for a 2004 Independent Spirit Award and an Emmy.
“Now, filming people is actually the thing that I live for. There is a kind of magic that someone like Albert Maysles talks about where there’s just this incredible connection with your subjects and something profound is happening, a palpable human drama unfolding. That feeling is the compass for everything I do now. And when I get that feeling of knowing that that kind of moment is happening – and it can be something as simple as someone making tea or as frightening as a judge coming to inspect a house and maybe getting evicted – there’s a definite pulse and you feel it. And that was something I discovered, really stumbled into, making Flag Wars. But it’s absolutely about that connection with people and capturing those moments on camera that guides my work, quite different from composing something beautiful in a more detached way. That was a transformative lesson for me,” Poitras said.
In the past few years, The New York Times started publishing op-docs, a new distribution format for short documentaries created by independent filmmakers. In August 2012, The Program premiered on the site. It was a small piece of a longer form documentary Poitras was working on. The Program was based on interviews with William Binney, a veteran of the NSA, who designed the Stellar Wind project and later became a whistleblower. Stellar Wind was designed for foreign espionage but in 2001 began being used to spy on citizens in the United States, prompting concerns by Binney and other NSA vets that the U.S. government’s actions were illegal and unconstitutional.
When she began working on the surveillance project, she increased her own digital security to a higher level, using encryption software, cutting down on her use of a cellphone, and using separate computers for different tasks.
Her interest and knowledge of surveillance in the U.S. is what probably prompted Edward Snowden to seek her out. In January of 2013, Poitras received an email from an anonymous stranger requesting her public encryption key, which would allow the stranger to send her an encrypted email. Promising sensitive information, the stranger asked Poitras to take even more security steps to protect their communication. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” anonymous wrote.
Poitras then received a lengthy email outlining a number of surveillance programs run by the government. “This I can prove,” anonymous said.
“I thought, O.K., if this is true, my life just changed,” she told me last month. “It was staggering, what he claimed to know and be able to provide. I just knew that I had to change everything,” Poitras told The New York Times.
The anonymous stranger requested that Poitras get in touch with journalist Glenn Greenwald and include him in their communications. In June, Poitras and Greenwald traveled to Hong Kong to finally meet the anonymous source, who turned out to be NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“Both of us almost fell over when we saw how young he was,” Poitras said, still sounding surprised. “I had no idea. I assumed I was dealing with somebody who was really high-level and therefore older. But I also knew from our back and forth that he was incredibly knowledgeable about computer systems, which put him younger in my mind. So I was thinking like 40s, somebody who really grew up on computers but who had to be at a higher level.”
Poitras documented their meeting and the subsequent time spent with Snowden in her film, Citizenfour, the third piece of the 9/11 trilogy, replacing Poitras’ original idea of The Program.
After Snowden left Hong Kong, Poitras returned to her apartment in Berlin, where she had moved the previous fall to edit her documentary without worry that the FBI would bust in and raid her home. “I’m not stopping what I’m doing, but I have left the country. I literally didn’t feel like I could protect my material in the United States, and this was before I was contacted by Snowden. If you promise someone you’re going to protect them as a source and you know the government is monitoring you or seizing your laptop, you can’t actually physically do it.”
Citizenfour premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2014 and among many other accolades, went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary.
Despite all of the risks associated with the work she does, Poitras does not plan to let up on the difficult subjects she uncovers in her films. Next up is a documentary called Aslyum, which will take a look at Julian Assange and Wikileaks.
WATCH: Citizenfour – HBO Go