Snowden documentary maker talks about fighting surveillance

Laura Poitras’ documentary CITIZENFOUR – an intimate account of Edward Snowden’s effort to lift the lid on NSA snooping post 9/11 – premiered this month to a 10-minute standing ovation.

The filmmaker talks to dpa about the dangers of modern journalism and the ongoing fight against indiscriminate surveillance.

Edward Snowden orchestrated one of the most notorious security leaks in history. By risking his personal freedom to expose the global reach of NSA surveillance, Snowden has become an international icon of dissent.

Before anyone knew who he was, Snowden chose to share his material with journalist Laura Poitras, whose 2006 documentary about the US occupation of Iraq earned her years of harassment by security officials at American airports.

While Snowden sat in a Hong Kong hotel room going through a trove of classified documents with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, Poitras captured the tense and eerie exchange on film.

Her documentary premieres in Germany on October 27.

dpa: What made you believe the source when he first contacted you?

Poitras: Partly it was gut instinct. In early February, I got a long email [from Snowden] and it was so detailed and specific. He used terms like BOUNDLESS INFORMANT that nobody that I talked to had ever heard of. It seemed to be really hard to have made that up. My instinct was, OK, wow, this is a big deal.

I was also cautious because I wanted to make sure it wasn’t some kind of elaborate entrapment. I actually asked the source, how do I know that you’re not trying to entrap me? And he said, I’m not going to ever ask anything. I’m just going to give you information. I think he appreciated the fact that I was skeptical and challenging, so we established a rapport.

dpa: Now that the film is complete and you know how the sequence of events unfolded, would you do anything differently?

Poitras: Given the fact that we were taking on really powerful forces, I think there are some things I would do differently. But in general I think that we were able to report in a way that pushed consciousness and changed the debate around the issue. Whether or not that translates into governments changing their surveillance systems is still unknown.

The one thing that has been the biggest struggle is how to broaden the reporting without making mistakes that could backfire – that you work with the wrong partner, that you publish the wrong things and that you create a backlash. … The first months we were able to publish a lot, and really aggressively, and then it just seemed to be a lot of pressure and so it slowed down. I wish we’d kept up the pace more. I still want to.

dpa: What was the message or the purpose of the film?

Poitras: I really felt that what happened in this hotel room was a monumental moment in journalism that I had the permission to document. That’s much more what I’m doing rather than trying to sway anyone’s opinion about Snowden. … I’m not going to take the risks that I took to make this film to win over opinions.

What I really want to show is the context of the US really coming down on journalists and really coming down on whistleblowers, leakers and sources. This is a document of doing journalism in really frightening times when the risks are high for everyone involved.

I also want to show the moral dilemma that [the US] is in. Why is it that it has to be whistleblowers that expose what the government is doing? Why do they have to face the sacrifices that they do?

dpa: The end of the film alludes to a new source that has come forward. Can you tell us about that?

Poitras: I’m not going to go into details about the new source. But what we do know from their information is that the NSA’s communications system flows into and out of the Ramstein Air Base in Germany which controls the drone programme. So it’s key in terms of the infrastructure of how people are targeted.

dpa: There’s been speculation about whether you might cut an additional film out of footage you gathered for the Snowden documentary. Is this true?

Poitras: Yes. I definitely learned in the editing room that I had shot more than one film. I filmed quite a bit with Wikileaks and Julian [Assange, who assisted Snowden in his attempt to avoid capture] and I soon realized that the footage from Hong Kong was going to take up a lot of time in the film. There were limitations on how much other material could be in this one.

dpa: Snowden was recently granted asylum in Russia, but the debate about bringing him to Germany to give testimony at a parliamentary committee continues. What are your thoughts?

Poitras: There is a tremendous amount of popular support to bring him here. I think it’s a political question and I think it comes down to the government and if it is willing to anger the US. With all these things, you never know what the tipping point is. I’m optimistic: history does surprise us sometimes.

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Snowden documentary maker talks about fighting surveillance