Laura Poitras's highly anticipated documentary Citizenfour was shown last week in New York. (AP/Charles Sykes/Invision)
Laura Poitras's highly anticipated documentary Citizenfour was shown last week in New York. (AP/Charles Sykes/Invision)

Eight days in Hong Kong: Laura Poitras on documenting Snowden for ‘Citizenfour’

The world premiere of Laura Poitras’s highly anticipated documentary “CITIZENFOUR” at the New York Film Festival occurred with the appropriate amount of intrigue for a film about last year’s dramatic revelations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. The press and premiere screenings were clocked to begin simultaneously on Friday so no breaking news could be leaked. The movie was a last-minute addition to the festival and the first complete screening even for film industry professionals, who had previously seen it only with crucial redactions. In a surreal touch, a 9-foot tall statue of the film’s protagonist, Edward Snowden, mysteriously appeared in a park in New York earlier that day at the very moment–and apparently coincidentally–in which another principal character, journalist Glenn Greenwald, was there having breakfast.

The atmosphere of suspense continued throughout the film, which arrives in U.S. theaters on October 24 and gives the fullest picture yet of what happened after Snowden contacted Poitras in January 2013. The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, along with Greenwald and the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, broke the Snowden story six months later.

At the time of Snowden’s first contact, Poitras was working on a documentary about surveillance that was to be the third in a trilogy of films about national security policies in post-9/11 America. While she worked on those documentaries from 2006 to 2012, she says she was interrogated and searched approximately 40 times at the U.S. border without any official explanation. At least once, she said, she also had electronics and materials seized. “When it first started happening, I was naive and thought as soon as they realize I am a journalist and filmmaker I’ll stop being detained at the border,” Poitras told me in an interview on Sunday. “And then it didn’t end. So after the first year of being detained every time I traveled, I became much more savvy. I [knew it]… would threaten my ability to do my work and so I started taking measures to protect myself and my sources.” Such was her level of concern that she moved to Berlin in the fall of 2012 as part of a promise she had made to her sources to edit the film outside of the U.S.

Thus Poitras was already adept at using encryption and the other advanced digital security methods required to communicate with the anonymous source who called himself “Citizenfour.” The documentary is the first I can remember seeing in which free digital security software projects are explicitly thanked in the closing credits. It was Greenwald’s lack of familiarity with these techniques that led Snowden to turn to Poitras instead, after initially contacting Greenwald in late 2012. Some of the more humorous exchanges in the film involve Snowden chiding Greenwald for his insufficiently strong passwords and other technological failings.

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed it had secretly subpoenaed the phone records of nearly two dozen Associated Press telephone lines and the emails and phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen as part of two separate leak investigations. The two cases, and language in the Rosen subpoena calling the journalist an “abettor and co-conspirator,” provoked widespread criticism. (These events partly inspired the publication of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ landmark report “The Obama Administration and the Press–whose one-year anniversary coincided with the premiere on Friday–and the launch of CPJ’s Right to Report in the Digital Age campaign.)

“I was playing pretty close attention obviously when the AP story happened and particularly the Rosen case,” Poitras told me. She said that while she found the DOJ’s actions “frightening,” she was heartened to see “people really were pretty outraged by it. So it did seem to provide a little bit of protection knowing that I was about to break something that would be pretty huge.”

Two weeks after the AP subpoena revelations Poitras, now joined by Greenwald and veteran Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, met their source at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where the crux of the film’s story takes place.

“I knew that I was going to be able to film something of historical magnitude,” Poitras told me. “Both in terms of what was going to be revealed, but also for journalism. Usually these kinds of encounters don’t happen with a camera present. Usually they are in basements or parking garages. So to be able to be there and document it…I knew that that would be kind of the heart of a film.”

Though many of the dramatic details of the following eight days that the four subjects shared at the hotel–during which they met Snowden and published the first of a series of articles that would eventually win the Pulitzer prize–were revealed in a New York Times magazine profile last year, watching them unfold is riveting. The movie’s subject matter, underscored by the tense soundtrack, suggests a real-life thriller. But as a film “CITIZENFOUR” feels more like a piece of cinema vérité than a John le Carré adaptation. Poitras’s fly-on-the-wall style of filming documents the eight days in seeming real time and with striking intimacy. The filmmaker serves as the movie’s silent narrator, appearing in first-person title cards interspersed throughout the film and guiding the action, but remaining invisible behind the camera.

“It was kind of obvious that I needed to [be part of the story] because I was a participant in the events. So it had to be told from a first-person perspective,” Poitras told me. “But I didn’t want it to collapse into a personal essay. Because I really like cinema. And cinema is scenes and dramatic elements, and the Hong Kong hotel provided that.”

With the setting claustrophobically confined to bland hotel interiors and the action to frantic typing, Poitras documents quiet, but telling moments. The closest we ever see the remarkably composed Snowden to being emotional is a scene in which he explains to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who was in Hawaii, that he won’t be coming home. Appropriately, the exchange is virtual and silent. In other scenes, we see him lounging in a bathrobe and later watching, with a stricken expression, the wall-to-wall news coverage after the first of the documents is published.

“I pretty much filmed whenever,” Poitras said. “No one ever asked me to turn [the camera] off. Everyone was kind of all in. Either we are all going to be indicted together or maybe we’ll pull this off. And the camera just added more to that.”

While Snowden mostly remains at an emotional distance, these moments feel markedly intimate and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the camera–and, by extension, the viewer–is, ironically enough, surveilling him. At the end of the film, Poitras films Snowden and Mills through the window of their home in Moscow at night, in a shot that feels appropriately voyeuristic for a man who is not in prison, but far from free. In one of the few pieces of breaking news, it is revealed that the couple were reunited in July and now live together in Moscow.

In the film, after leaving the Mira Hotel the action moves around the globe to newsrooms in Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Greenwald, Poitras and local journalists report the details behind Citizenfour’s assertion in one of his earliest messages to Poitras that “the surveillance we live under is the highest privilege when compared with how we treat the rest of the world. This I can prove.” We also see the arrival in Brazil of an exhausted David Miranda–Greenwald’s partner–after he was questioned for hours by UK authorities, as well as the forced destruction of a hard drive containing a copy of the Snowden files in the basement of the Guardian‘s offices in London.

One scene shows Poitras and Greenwald communicating by encrypted chat about the possibility of ever returning to their native U.S. (Greenwald lives in Brazil). “I don’t know,” Poitras writes. There is a “strong case we will be served with subpoenas.”

“For me,” Greenwald writes, “that is a best case scenario.”

Poitras told me that the months after they left Hong Kong were “pretty clearly a time of maximum risk… [and] there was no way I was going to travel.” But when the journalists were awarded a George Polk Award in New York in April for their reporting, “Glenn said he really wanted to travel and we talked about it,” Poitras told me. “I was hesitant… and felt like I had a bit more exposure than Glenn did… I was Snowden’s first contact and had already been put on a watch list. The government had already labeled me as–well, actually, I don’t know what they had labeled me because they have never told me,” she said. “I was also still editing and I didn’t want to risk not being able to finish the film if I got sucked into the spectrum of possible things: subpoena, material witness, revoking passport, and indictment…but we decided it was important to not be intimidated. So we traveled, but in a coordinated way” and after consulting with multiple lawyers.

The two were able to travel without interference.

Though the border interrogations ceased shortly after Poitras went public with her experience in spring 2012 she is still nervous every time she travels, and never carries sensitive material. She advised any journalist in a similar situation to “assert your rights that you have privileged information… [so] they have to bring in supervisors.” If officials try to take your materials or electronics, she said, “you have to affirmatively not consent or they will copy everything.”

Though Poitras still believes there is a risk of a subpoena she is hardly cowed. After the cliffhanger of a final scene in which Greenwald and Snowden tease the viewer with new revelations written on scraps of torn up paper, it’s easy to imagine the trilogy might someday have another installment.

Poitras is travelling widely to promote the film, but there is one border that she will still not cross. “I haven’t been to the UK since Miranda was detained,” she said. “And I don’t plan to.”