The sky over Yemen at 1:30 a.m. is dark and still, a vault of deep blackness brushed with a faint smattering of stars. Sprawled on an office chair beneath it, the filmmaker Laura Poitras stares upward, taking in the view.
Yemen’s a complicated place, a flash point in America’s war on terror and currently in the throes of a devastating civil war. Poitras lived there for a while, in a small apartment in the middle of Sana’a, the capital city, filming her 2010 documentary, The Oath. She’d spent much of her adult life in New York, but after 9/11, as so many artists and journalists examined what the attacks had done to America, Poitras picked up her camera and set off to explore what 9/11—or, more accurately, America’s response to it—was doing to the rest of the world. Her work has taken her to Iraq, to Guantánamo Bay, and perhaps most famously to Hong Kong in 2013, where she spent eight tense days holed up in a hotel room with Edward Snowden, filming him up close and in real time as he went from an anonymous computer nerd to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Her filmCitizenfour swept the awards season last year, culminating in an Oscar win.
Poitras is once again in New York, having moved back to the city after several years basing herself out of Berlin. We’re in her studio, a few blocks from the Hudson River, peering at the sky in Yemen. It’s a sunny afternoon, but the window shades have been drawn against the light, so that a live video feed from Sana’a can be projected clearly onto a ceiling-mounted screen. Dressed casually in a black cotton shirt, jeans, and sneakers, Poitras, who is 51, leans back in her chair. The sky-cam is an experiment. She is putting together her first major art exhibition, which will occupy the top floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art beginning this month. The exhibit includes a number of short films but is primarily a series of immersive installations, designed almost as a walk-through narrative about the world post 9/11. One idea is to project onto the museum’s ceiling overhead views from parts of the world where the U.S. drone program is active. “I’m interested in going back to these themes of the war on terror,” Poitras says. “What does it mean? How can we understand it on more human terms?”
The studio is a large concrete-floored room filled primarily with computer equipment. In a cluttered corner, sitting on a file cabinet, is a bronze BAFTA Award looking as if nobody has given it a second thought. Pretty much everyone I speak with about Poitras tells me that she is a seven-day-a-week worker, someone who is both too humble and too driven to pause and survey her achievements, which in addition to her raft of film awards includes a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant.” “I’m pretty obsessive,” Poitras says, referring to her marathon workweeks and myriad projects, “but these are good problems to have.”
Poitras feels strongly that the U.S. government, through a number of secretive anti-terror programs and a lack of Congressional oversight, has done more to breed the kind of anti-American sentiment that fuels terrorism than to squelch it. “I really think that the war on terror makes us less safe,” she tells me. “Look at something like ISIS. ISIS emerged out of the power vacuum that we created in the Iraq War.” She cites as evidence everything from the use of torture at Guantánamo to the top-secret drone assassination program that’s put unmanned, buzzing aircraft in the skies over places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. “It creates a completely unstable world,” she says.
A lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of. But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared LAURA POITRAS
Her work could be seen as attempting, again and again, to redirect the American gaze. Her film My Country, My Country offered a stirring look at the life of an Iraqi doctor running for political office in Baghdad. The Oath told parallel stories of a former jihadist living freely in Yemen while his brother-in-law languished in Guantánamo. Lately she’s focused on drones. Drone strikes aimed at terrorists, Poitras will tell you, have killed scores of civilians. The first day I meet Poitras in October, the Intercept, the online media organization she founded in 2014 with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, has just published an explosive series of stories about the U.S. drone program. Among its chief revelations is a leaked military review showing that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan were “not the intended target.” And while Scahill is out making the rounds on cable talk shows, while Greenwald offers a stream of spitfire outrage on Twitter, Poitras is attempting to hit a deeper vein—that of human empathy. In putting video of Yemen on the ceiling of the Whitney Museum, she’s quietly inviting Americans to consider skies that are not their own.
“Artists have always dealt with the critical issues of their time,” says the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg. “And Laura Poitras knows the issues firsthand.” She’s titled the exhibition “Astro Noise,” which is also the nickname Edward Snowden gave to the massive file of leaked documents he sent her in 2013, which landed in her life with the force of a meteor. Weinberg predicts that the exhibition will serve as a lightning rod for public discourse. “You’ll have people on one end of the spectrum who’ll say it’s not radical enough,” he says, “and another side feeling like it’s an incredible breach of national security.”
Later that evening, Poitras sits in a low-lit Japanese restaurant in SoHo, sipping a green-tea mojito and mulling over all that’s happened in the last two years. “To be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve taken the time to take a breath,” she says. She seems a bit stunned, like a diver who’s only just surfaced. “In retrospect, a lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of,” she says. “But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared.”
Poitras has flowing dark hair and gray-green eyes that are wide and watchful. In conversation, she’s thoughtful and earnest, laughing often but never appearing fully relaxed. The restaurant is dim enough that, tucked into a corner, she’s hardly visible. Which, it would seem, is how she likes it. Poitras is a dialed-down presence in any room, soft-spoken and unshowy, almost invariably dressed in black. Twice now, I’ve attended premieres of her films—crowded, celebratory affairs meant to be all about her—and each time she seemed deliberately to get lost in the crowd. “With my work, being under the radar is sort of a good thing,” she tells me.
There’s a distinct irony to this, of course. These days, there’s little chance of her staying under the radar. If she was once a respected but little-known documentarian, Poitras—post-Snowden—has become a powerful force in both film and news media. Through the Intercept, she recently launched a bold new outlet that funds and posts short-form documentaries (“visual journalism” is how she refers to it), called “Field of Vision.” At the New York Film Festival in late September, she previewed her next film project, Asylum, which has been edited into thirteen short episodes and chronicles the plight of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Poitras has been filming off and on since 2011.
All the while, she continues to work with a small team of journalists, divining information from the seemingly inexhaustible Snowden archive. “I still feel an intense obligation to report on it,” Poitras says, adding that there’s pressure to handle the material responsibly, to weigh which government secrets are important for the public to know and which are best left undisclosed. Her colleague Glenn Greenwald—whose reporting from Hong Kong introduced the world to NSA spying—says that the archive represents “both a massive opportunity but also a very heavy burden” for Poitras, adding that “Laura is one of the most creative, passionate, intense, and complicated people I’ve ever met.” And while Greenwald is verbose and comfortable in the spotlight, Poitras seems bent on keeping a lower profile. “She has this profound regard for art and its ability to enlighten and move people,” he says. “She channels all of that into her filmmaking rather than into polemics or words.”
When she was a child growing up in an affluent suburb of Boston, Poitras says, she was quiet and serious, interested in art at an early age. Her father was a computer programmer at a hospital, her mother a registered nurse. She attended a private school that emphasized student-led learning. “There was a lot of unstructured time, which allowed me to develop my senses creatively,” she says. As a teen, she often escaped into the city to see live music (David Bowie, Talking Heads) and movies (A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver) at art houses.
By the time she was twelve, she had fallen in love with cooking. After finishing high school, she worked for a number of years as a sous-chef in prominent French restaurants—first in Boston, then in San Francisco. “I loved the challenge,” she says now. “I loved the creativity. I loved the fact that every day you had to make something new.” It was also, she adds, good training for the quick-paced, high-stress filmmaking she would later do. In her free time, she took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, drawn to experimental, avant-garde film. Eventually, she relocated to New York, studying political theory and media studies at the New School. Nowadays, Poitras enjoys eating a great meal but doesn’t often cook herself, finding it too stressful. “I go into work mode,” she says with a laugh. “I take it too seriously. It’s not relaxing at all.”
Poitras was 35 years old when she embarked on her first long-form documentary, collaborating with a filmmaker named Linda Goode Bryant on Flag Wars, which followed a conflict over gentrification in a traditionally African-American neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. The film aired on PBS in 2003 and was nominated for an Emmy. More important, it was a revelation for Poitras about what she wanted to do with her life. “It was a very profound experience,” she says. “I learned that I actually love filming people, being with them for these long periods of time, in moments of uncertainty, not knowing what will happen.”
She and Goode Bryant were in the midst of editing Flag Wars when the September 11 attacks took place. Poitras was living on 101st Street and remembers walking in the morning to work, unaware of what was happening. Her first inkling came when she passed a homeless person on the street, who looked at her and said, “The world is ending.” She was moved by the outpouring of compassion that flowed through the city. “It was actually a very profound time to be in New York,” she says. But later, as the drumbeat for the Iraq war picked up, she felt the stirrings of genuine alarm. “I had a real sense that we were moving in a direction that was really dangerous,” she says. “That was when I realized I wanted to say something about it.”
In her films, Poitras is mostly invisible, dedicated to the let-it-happen style of cinema vérité. Her steeliness behind the camera is legendary. Diane Weyermann, executive vice president for documentaries at Participant Media and one of the producers on Citizenfour, remembers seeing My Country, My Country, which received an Academy Award nomination. Poitras had moved herself to Baghdad in the summer of 2004, as the insurgency was beginning, spending much of her time in the home of Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, who is profiled in the film, and in the homes of other Iraqis. “There’s this moment when she’s filming and a bomb goes off—an explosion,” says Weyermann. “And the camera doesn’t move. The people in the kitchen all jump up and run, but Laura doesn’t. It was that moment, that scene, that made me understand what a singular talent she is.”
Snowden also recognized Poitras’s grit. He contacted her after seeing a short documentary she’d made about William Binney, a whistle-blower who left the NSA in 2001. She was one of few journalists well versed in digital security at the time. For reasons she didn’t understand, Poitras had been put on a terrorism-related watch list by the U.S. government. Over the course of several years, she was detained and questioned more than 40 times at airports, having her notes photocopied and at one point, a laptop confiscated, which led her to start securing her communications and eventually to move from New York to Berlin, where she felt less compromised.
When a message arrived from an anonymous source calling himself Citizen Four, she worried it was a trap. “I had immediate ‘alert’ instincts,” Poitras says now. “I thought, This is dangerous. And it was.”
She and Snowden corresponded with mutual caution for several months. Knowing the stakes were high, she limited contact with friends, moved to a new apartment, and stopped carrying a cell phone, knowing it could be used to track her location. She played out different scenarios in her head, including one in which she went to jail in order to protect her then-anonymous source. The anxiety was crushing. Her eyes twitched; her throat felt clenched. She did yoga to try to stay calm. “I’m battling with my nervous system,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “It doesn’t let me rest or sleep.”
Earlier that day, Poitras allowed me to read excerpts of the journal she kept in Berlin, which she has decided, after some hesitation, to publish in the catalog accompanying the Whitney exhibition. The journal entries reveal both a churning intellect (“What is this film really about? It might be about the courage to resist power . . . ”), bouts of what seems like depression (“I don’t feel good or grounded. I’m off-balance”), and a mounting sense of paranoia.
The decision to publish the journal feels significant. Poitras is unswervingly guarded when it comes to her private life. She will speak animatedly about films she loves (the documentary Man on Wire, the HBO miniseries The Jinx), artists who’ve inspired her (American photographer Trevor Paglen), or books that have given her insight (George Orwell’s 1984). But pose any sort of question about her life outside of work, and you are likely to be met with a gentle smackdown, usually in the form of “I’d rather not say.”
Our conversation begins to take on a kind of comic push-pull as Poitras declines to give details, even when the details—it seems to me—are harmless. She won’t tell me which part of Berlin she lived in, whether her journal was a bound or spiral notebook, whether she wrote in it with pen. She doesn’t want to discuss her family, her relationship status, or what she does in her free time. “I’ve never talked about my private life,” she says. “I feel like that’s private.” After this comes a long silence.
Perhaps this is the residue of being surveilled. Perhaps it’s an inbred cautiousness—a deep, protective impulse that’s kept her safe and productive through years of working in high-risk environments. Poitras tells me she doesn’t much enjoy being well known. “I don’t love it when someone comes up to me in a coffee shop,” she says, almost sheepishly. She also recognizes that there’s something “ungenerous,” as she puts it, in being a filmmaker who finds her way into the inner sanctum of other people’s lives, but insists on keeping prying outsiders out of her own. Nonetheless, the line holds.
“I feel bad,” she says finally, acknowledging all the things she won’t tell me.
“I feel bad, too,” I say, acknowledging all the things I want to know.
Poitras assumes that she’s still “of interest” to intelligence agencies. She recently sued the federal government to obtain records of her various detentions at airports, receiving 800-plus pages, some of which she intends to hang on the walls of the Whitney. Reading the documents, she discovered that a secret grand jury was convened in 2007 to investigate her on charges of conspiracy, stemming from a day in Iraq when U.S. soldiers spotted Poitras on a Baghdad rooftop holding a camera and apparently deemed it suspicious. (Poitras says any suggestion she abetted Iraqi insurgents is spurious.) “That was definitely shocking,” she says. It’s unclear what the grand jury’s ultimate findings were, but she’s no longer hassled at airports. She’s also relaxed her guard enough to start carrying an iPhone. Happy to be back in New York, she often meets friends for dinner and turns up regularly at documentary-film premieres and art openings. It all seems to be part of the post-Snowden resurfacing. When I ask if it feels good to have a cell phone again, Poitras laughs. “No, but it feels practical,” she says. “I mean, for a long time, I was very hard to reach.”
As the backstory to the Snowden affair has grown more public, Poitras has taken on the glimmer of an icon. The latest season of the TV show Homeland, for example, is set in Berlin and features hackers, government agents, top-secret leaked documents, and a hard-driving journalist named Laura. Everyone from theWall Street Journal to The New York Times has noted the parallel to Poitras. When I mention this to her, she flares her eyelids as if to say, “Can you believe it?” but offers no comment.
“It’s gotten surreal,” says Brenda Coughlin, a producer at Poitras’s film company who’s working closely with her on the Whitney exhibition. “Her life has changed dramatically, and I think that’s weird for her.” Last year, during a visit to Hong Kong, Poitras stayed at the Mira Hotel, where she first filmed Snowden. Stepping onto an elevator one day, she bumped into actor Zachary Quinto and a Hollywood film crew working on the Oliver Stone version of the Snowden story, due out this spring, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, Quinto as Greenwald, and Melissa Leo playing the role of Poitras. (Poitras is not involved with the film.)
Hollywood remains a strange kind of otherworld. Several colleagues told me stories of Poitras doing red-carpet interviews at awards shows, patiently enduring questions about her wardrobe while also talking, in the least obnoxious way possible, about civil liberties. “It’s always a contradictory experience,” Poitras says with a laugh. “I’ve been nominated twice now [for Academy Awards], both times for films about dark and depressing events. And then you have to get all dressed up and go.” Her go-to designer, she adds, is German Annette Görtz. Poitras accepted her Oscar last year with a nervous, gracious dignity, thanking her many collaborators but also taking the opportunity to remind the audience that Snowden’s revelations exposed what she sees as not just “a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself.”
She and her Citizenfour crew then practically closed down the Vanity Fair after-party. The mood was celebratory, but what she felt, more than anything, was relief. “There were so many potential bad outcomes for so many people,” she says now. “It was pretty extraordinary that this was the outcome.” Coughlin recalls sitting on a couch at 4:00 a.m. next to Poitras and her Oscar. “I turned to her and had a kind of ‘Holy shit’ moment, like, ‘Look at where you are. You could have been in jail, or you could be at the Vanity Fair Oscar party!’ ”
Despite the hubbub and occasional glitz of the last year, Poitras remains solidly devoted to documentary filmmaking. “It’s a way to express who people are and also bigger things—what situation they are in—and that’s really powerful,” she says. “I love it. Like, I really, really love it.” She seems wistful, recalling how working onFlag Wars initially seized hold of her. “It was a surprise. I’d just assumed that as an artist or a creative person, I would always work in a solitary way.”
In the time I spend with Poitras, this moment would strike me as the most touching. All these years later, she still seems genuinely surprised by what she’s found in herself. She’s an inward person who has thrust herself outward into the world, perhaps against her nature. It’s a stretch, maybe a painful one, but inside that stretch is Poitras’s particular genius—the solitary artist who plants herself in the center of unfolding history. “I’m a different person, holding a camera. I’m normally pretty shy. I don’t actually love to travel,” she tells me. “But I love doing this work. And when I’m doing work, I have to put those things aside.”
We are done with our drinks. It’s a Friday evening, and the restaurant is now crowded. Poitras picks up the two tote bags she’s brought from her studio, stuffed with work she plans to tackle over the weekend. “I love weekends,” she says. “They’re quiet. I can think. I get so much done.” It’s the most revealing disclosure she’s made about her personal life yet. Outside, dusk has fallen. Before we part ways, I ask Poitras which direction she’s heading, what neighborhood she lives in. She gives me a friendly hug and then a last, enigmatic smile. “I’d rather not say,” she says. “I hope you’ll understand.” And as she heads off to someplace I’ll never know, I realize that I do.