When Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden turn thousands of classified documents into headline news, word spread that he would be the focus of the third installment of her trilogy of documentaries about post-9/11 America. Citizenfour captures Snowden and a small group of intrepid journalists, including Poitras behind the camera, as the NSA scandal breaks. The heroism and resolve required to act under the government’s gaze drive the film. Poitras herself was a surveillance target well before Snowden, detained in US airports some forty times between 2006 and 2012. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Astra Taylor: When Snowden first contacted you last year, you took an amazing leap of faith. Why did you trust that these messages weren’t entrapment?
Laura Poitras: My gut told me it was legitimate, but I was very cautious in our correspondence. At some point I actually asked him, “How do I know that you’re legitimate, that you’re not trying to entrap me, that you’re not crazy?” And his response was, well, you’ll know when you ask officials for comment on these documents—their response will show that I’m legitimate. You’ll know it’s not entrapment because I’m never going to ask anything of you. I’m just going to tell you things.
But other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.
There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources. We see this, for example, with [New York Times reporter] James Risen being subpoenaed and pressured to give up confidential sources. We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.
Why did Snowden meet you in Hong Kong and agree to be filmed?
I thought he would remain an anonymous source. But in April 2013, he revealed to me that he wanted to take responsibility for this leak. He didn’t want other people to be investigated. That’s when I requested a meeting. I said that it’s important for me to meet you, and to film. I argued that being able to articulate his motivations was important. He was initially against filming because he didn’t want to become the story and felt that it was risky for us to be in the same place at the same time. If somebody shot us down, then the reporting might be stopped and his work would be all in vain.
When I talked to you years ago, you identified as an artist first and foremost. Has your conception of yourself changed?