In the Eye of the Storm: Laura Poitras on CITIZENFOUR
Red tail lights glow in an inky black tunnel. In voiceover, a woman’s voice softly reads. “Laura,” the email begins. The sender writes of encryption, passwords, the government documents he intends to send and the reason he addressed this email to her. “You’ve been selected,” Laura speaks, as the sender goes on to explain that every phone call she makes, trip she embarks on, person she befriends will be observed, recorded, surveilled. “This is a story few but you can tell.”
With this cool, measured voiceover, drawing us into her life at the moment it changed forever, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras begins the third film in her post 9/11 trilogy, CITIZENFOUR. Titled after the handle of that emailer, who we now know as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Poitras’s film is both a riveting thriller and a bracing rhetorical takedown of the modern surveillance state. It is also — with its depiction of a new breed of idealistic, tech-aware journalist, inclusion of breaking news and the director’s own role in the news events she is depicting — an essential primary source in one of the defining political stories of these times: the conflict between individual privacy rights and unchecked governments whose spy powers grow exponentially with each semiconductor advance.
Poitras’s post-9/11 trilogy focuses not on high-level decision makers but on smaller-scale figures who find themselves swept up by historical forces. The series began in 2006 with the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country. Spending eight months in Iraq in the lead-up to the 2005 election, she followed one candidate, a Sunni Arab doctor, reflecting through his various struggles the realities of America’s attempt to “democratize” the region. Despite its violent backdrop, My Country, My Country is an intimate film, one that makes larger political points by capturing in often heartbreaking detail the diminishing hopes of its subject and his family. 2010’s The Oath was even more ambitious, a kind of character-based mystery that unraveled the contradictions of American’s war on terror through parallel stories of Osama bin Laden’s jihad-spouting former bodyguard and his brother-in-law, a low-level al-Qaida driver — only one of whom is locked up in Guantanamo. (Of course, it’s not the one you’d think.)
Poitras’s work on those films led to her being placed on a Department of Homeland Security watch list. As journalist Glenn Greenwald reported in an April 2012 Salon article, Poitras would have her laptop, phone and camera confiscated upon entering the United States, and she’d be grilled by officials asking her to reveal her overseas sources and interview subjects. That experience — and the subject matter of the third film in her trilogy — led her to move to Berlin, where, on a computer monitor in her apartment, CITIZENFOUR begins.
If, in The Oath, Poitras employed unreliable narrators and nonlinear editing to better get at the confusion of post-9/11 foreign policy, in CITIZENFOUR she marshals her verite filmmaking into something resembling a criminal procedural. The film’s first act is all setup. Poitras introduces her characters (among them Greenwald; NSA whistleblower Bill Binney; and activist Jacob Appelbaum, shown teaching surveillance awareness to a group of Occupy Wall Streeters); surveys the terrain — which includes an eerily imposing NSA data center in Bluffdale, Utah; and, with archival footage, captures officials like NSA head James Clapper lying before Congress and government lawyers engaging in doublespeak to evade the Fourth Amendment. (“As long as everyone is being surveilled, no one has the standing to sue,” is how the government’s position in one case, Jewel v. NSA, is summed up.)
With those red tail lights suddenly emerging into the light, the film’s second act begins. Exiting a tunnel in Hong Kong, Poitras and Greenwald are traveling to meet Snowden for the first time. For the next hour, Poitras and her camera will stay locked within the small white room of his boutique hotel. (Filmmakers, this long sequence is a master class in how to maintain tension while shooting in a confined space.) If the government talking heads of the previous section, operating under cloak of “national security,” create a feeling of powerlessness in the viewer, Snowden’s warm, unexpectedly jocular presence does the opposite. His Southern-accented dialogues with Greenwald, Poitras and The Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill provide a crash course in government surveillance technique, breaking down in dizzying succession programs like PRISM, Tempora and Tumult. Poitras locks off her camera, Greenwald and MacAskill furiously scribble, and the often impenetrable techno-jargon is punctuated by moments of paranoid black humor, with each room service call or fire alarm bell potentially signaling Snowden’s capture.
Poitras’s camera stays in that room with Snowden for a week, covering not just the substance of his revelations but also his reaction to their broadcast and then, finally, the realization that he’ll probably never see his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, again. CITIZENFOUR’s third act ventures into the world post-Snowden, dispassionately capturing NSA pushback, mainstream media catch-up and emboldened activist opposition. Greenwald continues to report from Rio as Poitras travels to Brussels with Binney for EU hearings on privacy, to security conferences with Appelbaum, to visit Julian Assange in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, to the Guardian offices and on assignment with reporter Jeremy Scahill. Astutely mining newsroom, courtroom and television footage, flow charts and Powerpoints, chat logs and encrypted emails, CITIZENFOUR engages in a 21st century version of what filmmaker Emile de Antonio used to call “radical scavenging.” Near the end, Poitras travels to Russia to see Snowden once more. (In one of the film’s widely reported new revelations, he is now living there with Mills.) Capturing the two of them in one perfect stationary frame, Poitras summarizes her film’s themes of privacy, the moral invasiveness of surveillance and the sacrifice required by political idealism.
The political importance of CITIZENFOUR is obvious, but the film is also fascinating for its documentary practice. Poitras was midway into what would have been a very different movie when she was contacted by Snowden. While reshaping her film, she simultaneously embraced journalism, with her shared reporting on the NSA for The Guardian and The Washington Post resulting in a Pulitzer Prize.
In 2016, Poitras will develop her work with surveillance even further — into the gallery realm, as she has been curated for a one-woman show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This fall, however, backed by Radius she arrives in theaters with CITIZENFOUR, and if you haven’t guessed by now, it’s a serious and rigorous film that demands its viewers pay attention to its arguments while applying its inquiries to their own lives.
Indeed, just to talk with Poitras about CITIZENFOUR is to enter her world. When I meet her in Berlin, I know enough not to bring my iPhone — Poitras has spoken about governments’ ability to track cell phone locations as well as remotely activate the camera and voice microphone — and our meeting place was picked casually, on the fly. (Poitras feels her own apartment is probably bugged.) After having watched her film, the minor irritation caused by forgoing the simplest, most commonplace convenience — like GPS to navigate me back to my hotel — made me respect even more deeply the intensity and commitment to which Poitras has engaged with subject matter that has literally subsumed her life. But her production company is named “Praxis,” after all.
In Berlin I spoke with Poitras about Snowden, becoming a character in her own movie and the future of privacy. CITIZENFOUR is in theaters October 24.
In any conversation about your recent work, your various detentions at the U.S. border come up, so let’s start there. What happened, and how did those episodes affect the development of this film? I started getting stopped in 2006, which was after I had made the film in Iraq [My Country, My Country]. I’d be stopped, patted down, questioned and interrogated every time I traveled, both internationally and domestically. It got increasingly worse when I started filming Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I’d be flying from London to the U.S., and not only would I be stopped in the U.S., but I’d also be detained in London, where I wouldn’t be able to get a boarding pass; I’d have to be questioned and searched. They would send people from customs, and U.S. officials would meet me at airports in Europe.
There’s definitely a connection between the fact that I was put on a watch list and [CITIZENFOUR], because, in some strange way, the fact that I was put on a watch list is what made me qualified to make this film. I had to learn certain techniques and tools to protect my material, to communicate securely. And it also kind of toughened me up a bit, you know? When I first started being detained, I thought it was a mistake: “Oh, this is all going to get cleared up. I’m a filmmaker.” I was naïve. It took a while for me to realize, “Oh, no, this is not going to stop. And it’s going to get increasingly aggressive.” And so, I learned a bit about how to be prepared for that kind of harassment or what would be the repercussions of it.
How did those detentions end? When I first met Glenn [Greenwald], I had told him about the harassment, and he immediately wanted to write about it. I was hesitant because I’ve always worked kind of under the radar and felt that it has been an effective way to get the kind of access that I wanted. The question of going public was a tough one because it can backfire. You can’t go public and then take it back. I didn’t know if [the harassment] would get worse if I talked to him, if it would make my travel more complicated. In the spring of 2012, I was flying back to New Jersey, and they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes [about the detention], and that was the time I said, “Okay, I need to go public.” It just really crossed the line. In retrospect, going public was the right thing to do because it created an outcry. After Glenn’s story was published, I was able to travel without being stopped, which doesn’t mean they didn’t still flag me. It just means they didn’t do it so overtly.
The conversation I had with Glenn was interesting because it put me in the position that I’m usually on the other end of. I’m often asking people, “Will you go on the record? Will you talk to me?” With Glenn, I was kind of the subject, and I was nervous; I didn’t know what the consequences would be. But it was a good lesson to have those roles flipped, to not be the one who’s asking somebody else to put themselves out there but [to be doing it myself]. So, yeah, he published that, which then led to a series of consequences that ultimately led to Snowden contacting me.
What was the original vision for this film, before Snowden entered the picture? I knew [these three films were] going to be a trilogy when I was working on Guantanamo in The Oath, and I thought it was important to bring the last part back to the U.S. If you look at what has been the impact post-9/11 in the United States, it is surveillance. Mass domestic spying happened immediately after 9/11. It was one of the first things they did.
But for the very first shoot for this film, in May 2011, I didn’t quite know what the narrative or who the main protagonist would be. I went to Rio to meet with Glenn. I was interested in this new kind of outsider journalism — someone having an impact on politics in the U.S. and writing from Rio. That shoot is in the film, where [Glenn is] on the phone doing an interview with all his dogs around him.
I was also interested in what WikiLeaks was doing in terms of changing the paradigm of how publication happened and challenging media to be more aggressive in what they covered. Glenn had written extensively on WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, so, I went down there with this idea of doing something that focused also on WikiLeaks. Right before I got on the plane to go to Rio, Jane Mayer’s [New Yorker] piece on Tom Drake, the NSA whistleblower who was charged under the Espionage Act, came out. It was at the time when Tom was still facing the possibility of a criminal case and 35 years in prison. Bill Binney was the other NSA whistleblower who’s talked about in the piece, and I got his number and called him from Rio. I was pretty nervous because I thought, “Okay, if I pick up my cellphone in Rio to call Bill Binney, the former technical director of the NSA, there’s no way that that’s not a conversation that’s probably going to be heard,” for so many factors: the scrutiny he was under; because of the fact I was out of the country; and because of the fact that I had been put on a watch list years before. I thought, “Well, this is going to turn the dial up in terms of scrutiny.
What was Binney’s first reaction when you called? You were calling him cold. He could have just hung up on me and said, “I’m not interested in talking to the press.” But his response was the opposite. He said, basically, “I’m tired of what the government’s doing, and, yes, I’ll talk to you.” So, the very first pieces of this film had in mind what I was interested in. But, like in all my films, there’s usually some theme or topic that I want to pursue, and I don’t know how I’m going to do that. And then that gets discovered during the course of filming.
After Glenn published his story [about the border detentions], it became known that I was filming with Bill. I did the short Op Doc for the Times because Bill’s health was bad at that point. I knew my film would take a while to finish, and I wanted to put it out there in case anything happened to him — and, thankfully, nothing has.
That whole episode about the border detention is a bit of a precursor to this film in that it was a different positioning of you as a filmmaker and the role you play in your own narrative. You’re a very private person, and suddenly you were part of the story. It’s kind of like there’s a feedback loop or something, where what I did at one point is looping back into the story. Yeah, I’ve clearly become a protagonist in the narrative, which is kind of interesting, and, in a way, it’s predictable. I went and decided to document what the U.S. was doing post-9/11; it’s not surprising that I would get caught up in that narrative, which is what happened.
Edward Snowden — his introduction must have introduced something of a formal challenge to the film that you had been making. You were conducting interviews and suddenly you were covering real-time events. It was mostly vérité with a handful of interviews — what I was doing before was real time, too. But I knew it would require a different kind of approach, because, to be quite honest, these emails I was getting over the course of five months beginning in January 2013 were incredibly powerful and evocative in and of themselves. I immediately thought it was a narrative that I wanted to tell because it was very clear that the person who was writing was putting their life on the line. But my brain actually started going another way — I started thinking about installation work. After doing the filming in Hong Kong and realizing that this [material] was going to be, in a sense, the heart of the film, it dictated everything before and after. It had to structurally work. It really was in the editing process that I realized that I have material for two separate films, and so there’s another film that will be made that will focus on the work that Julian [Assange] does.
When Snowden contacted you, what was his anticipation of how what he was telling you would function in terms of a film? Or was he contacting you solely as a journalist? He was definitely contacting me as a journalist. He was never like, “Oh, can you make a film about this story?” He actually resisted that strongly. He was like, “I don’t want to be filmed. I’m not the story.” He’d seen the Bill Binney piece, knew I was interested in the topic, and — which I didn’t know then — had tried to reach Glenn, but they weren’t able to set up encryption. He contacted me because of my interest in the topic and hoping that I would have the operational security to actually communicate. He knew enough about the fact that I had myself been put on a watch list, and that I had taken risks before. But I think it was pretty much straight up as a journalist, not because he wanted to be part of any documentary. When he contacted me, it was basically, “I have documents, and the public should know about these things.” He never asked about the film. It wasn’t until much later in our correspondence that he revealed to me he wouldn’t remain anonymous, that his footprint would be left, that the government would know who released these documents, and that he wanted to take responsibility because he didn’t want others to take the blame and have their lives destroyed. When he revealed that to me, it was totally a shock, because I’d been corresponding for several months with someone assuming they wanted to remain anonymous.
And that’s when you brought Glenn into the story. I already had moved to Berlin to edit, so I was communicating anonymously from Berlin. Early on in the correspondence, Snowden had said that the material would require a team of people, and that I should involve Glenn. I guess he had known that we were colleagues and we were both, at this point, on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. And that was in February. But I was in Berlin, and Glenn was in Rio, and I didn’t have a secure way to talk to him. I was pretty certain, early on, that if this was legit, it was serious business and that I had to be absolutely secure in my communications and that I could not send [messages] unencrypted — I couldn’t talk to anyone who I wasn’t talking to in person, essentially. Then, in April, I was in the U.S., and Glenn happened to be there. I said to him, “I’ve been contacted. Are you interested?” And he immediately said, “Yes, I want to be involved.” But Glenn learned later that he had already been contacted by [Snowden] using a different handle.
When did you introduce to Snowden the idea of being part of the film? When did the filmmaking process and the print journalism process collapse? When he told me that he was not going to be able to remain anonymous, I think he said, “It’s up to you how you’re going to handle it, but I hope that you paint the target on my back. I acted alone, and I don’t want anyone else to take the blame for this.”
That’s the opposite of the journalist’s dictum to always protect the source. It was totally contrary, yeah. It was like, “Out the source!” So, when he told me that, then I said I wanted to meet him and film. I mean, it was just my instincts as a filmmaker. It’s not like I was going to fit it in this [particular documentary I was making], and he said no. He said he didn’t want the story to be about him and that for us to be in the same place would create risk. The calculus of meeting, where we potentially both could be targeted, didn’t seem worth it to him; it could jeopardize the chances of the information getting out. In other words, it was safer if we were in different places.
Once I was in Hong Kong filming, that’s when I asked him permission. I asked him [for] permission to use the letters. He knew that I was documenting; by then it was very clear. And, honestly, when we met him, I didn’t think he knew if he was going to be alive the next day. He had risked basically everything. I had to say, “This is why it matters. You’re putting your life on the line because you believe that the public should know these things. Only you can communicate that. And that’s important.” I was sympathetic to his resistance because I don’t put myself in my films. But I think he was trusting at that point.
Those scenes in the Hong Kong hotel room are amazing, just on a sheer dramatic level. Could you talk about the moment of setting up to shoot? In Glenn’s book, No Place to Hide, he talks about you setting up your camera and saying, “So. I’m going to begin filming now,” and him feeling that his and Snowden’s behavior become more formal — in short, that the camera was intrusive. Everything that happened in Hong Kong was different than any other filming I’ve ever done. I went into the situation thinking, “Okay, I really need to document what’s going to happen. I know Glenn well enough to know that he’s not going to have small talk. He’s going to dive in, because he’s sort of voracious in his curiosity. So, I have to be ready because I want to document how this happens.” And, yeah, I will admit there was a lot of nervousness. I took out my camera, and I could have been a little bit more patient, but then I would have missed the introduction where Glenn is like, “Who are you? And why did you do what you did?” I felt that it was important to have that on camera. I think it maybe was also a filter for nervousness — I was trying to stay busy. But it definitely did create an awkwardness for a certain amount of time.
Your role as a journalist and as a filmmaker — did you ever feel those two things were competitive in any way? I would say in documentary filmmaking the work is journalism plus storytelling plus other things. I was obviously doing also print reporting, so, yeah, I [wore] different hats. When I went to Hong Kong, I was definitely there as a documentary filmmaker. I felt that that was my job. And because this was going to happen once, I wanted to record it. And then, after we left Hong Kong and I came back to Berlin, it was clear that my responsibility was to work on reporting from the archive. And that’s when I started working with Der Spiegel and publishing stories.
With journalism and documentary filmmaking, or print journalism and documentary, there are some overlaps, certain things where the skills are similar. But then there are other things where I think that they’re very different. I consider myself a visual journalist, and so I have been collaborating with [other journalists] in print, partnering with people who had the sources that I didn’t have. I wasn’t doing national security reporting previously, [although] The Oath did talk about national security issues and contained many journalistic elements. But it’s definitely different. And there is kind of a collapsing of my life with this story in a way that’s never happened to me before.
On a storytelling level, what were the challenges of that? The film starts with your voiceover, and I think there’s just a small glimpse of you in the Hong Kong hotel room mirror. Could you discuss how you dealt with your own presence in the film? There’s so often a trope of the Western journalist as a framing device in American movies about politics, both documentary and fiction. The trope of the Western journalist is actually something I’m super aware of. In the first film, the Iraq film, it was very, very intentional that I wasn’t in the film. It would have been easy to talk about the danger that I was in — the “it was a dangerous time to be in Iraq” narrative. But I wanted all the focus to be on the Iraqi family. And then, in The Oath, when we were editing, the editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, realized while doing [feedback] screenings that there was an uneasiness in the audience at the access. People were trying to figure out how the access was possible. They were like, “What the fuck! How is there a camera there?” It was important to kind of break the fourth wall, to acknowledge the presence of the camera, and so he folded me into the edit a bit asking questions so that people could go on the journey of the story and not spend a lot of energy trying to understand the context of how the filming was possible.
Obviously, I’m clearly a protagonist in [CITIZENFOUR], and it wasn’t clear that that was going to be the case before Hong Kong. My editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, said, “You should be documenting the work you’re doing in reporting.” So, I actually did film some of that, and it felt contrived and really weird. Being the filmmaker and then also putting myself in front of the camera — it broke the narrative for me. But I wanted it to be clear that I was the author, and that the author was also a participant in the story and to do it in a way that was off camera. So, you see I’m referred to often in the hotel room; Glenn talks to me and all that kind of stuff. But also in Hong Kong, I was working — I was the cinematographer. I couldn’t really be doing that and then also be in front of the camera.
So, there was a kind of organic quality to that footage that we wanted the rest of the film to mirror. It was about how to put my presence in and not have it become a personal essay, which is a genre that just doesn’t interest me. We had a version that started to teeter that way a little bit, where it was more driven by what I would call more essay-type, as opposed to narrative scenes. I really like stories that unfold where you have scenes and scenes that build on scenes, and they take you on a journey. I wanted to keep those elements and then also sort of fold in my voice. But it’s been a delicate calibration. The audience has a right to know that I’m part of the story, that I’m not an objective outsider, because that will inform how they perceive the events. In the same way that you read a novel and there’s maybe a narrator — that’s kind of how I wanted to approach it. You are aware that there was somebody who’s guiding you on a journey.
You have that line early on, from Snowden’s email to you: “Only you can tell this story.” Yeah. And then [the film] cuts to Binney, which is really interesting. I am the storyteller, but I’m also like, “Okay, meet Bill Binney, this NSA guy who devoted his life to protecting the country. They came into his house with guns. That’s the story I want to tell.”
Could you talk about the various iterations of the film? What have been some of the aesthetic and content issues you’ve grappled with as you’ve moved it through various cuts? One of the decisions we came to once we had the first assembly was that I had shot material for two films. We had to come to terms with that, because I have really extraordinary footage that is not in this film. And I think we realized that Hong Kong was going to dictate the rest of the film, how the structure would work. And we had a massive amount of footage. We’ve had to simplify. I think that’s been the biggest challenge, to say, “Okay, this is on topic, but we have to arrive at Hong Kong relatively soon in the film.” And then the other is: Okay, what’s the end? I felt very strongly from the beginning that narratively, I did not want the ending to be about resolution. This is not about tying the bow. I wanted the film to kick out into the world. Often, when you have a character-driven narrative, you need a resolution. Something happens, and then there’s a resolution. But in this case, because Snowden so much didn’t want the film to be about him, the film is about his action and the shockwaves that ripple out. And so, the film’s ending shouldn’t be about him. It will include him — where he is, what’s going on — but what he exposed and the impact of what he’s exposed is what the film is about.
We’re at a crossroads [as a society]. We don’t know what we’re going to do with this knowledge. We don’t know if we’re going to use it to have a more secure Internet and protect privacy. Are we going to use it to target worrisome whistleblowers, journalists? It’s kind of a fork in the road, and so I didn’t want an ending that would give any sense of false resolution, because I think there is none.
You have the ending of a horror movie. Battles have been won, but the monster is coming back. Mathilde and I talked about it as waves crashing. There’s the first act, which is one wave, and then there’s the second act, and then there’s the third act, which is another wave crashing.
The story of Edward Snowden has been told in different forms, from your own journalism to Glenn’s book to television reportage. As a feature film, what did you want CITIZENFOUR to do differently? What is the relationship of this story within the form of a feature film to this content? For me, the theme of the film is NSA surveillance, or the growing surveillance state, but I think, at its core, it’s really a film about people who see something and are willing to stand up and take risks. [After] spending the last decade trying to document post-9/11 America, it’s been quite discouraging to see how few people, particularly people in positions of government power, have been willing to stand up when they see something wrong or a violation of some law or illegalities. And so, this film really documents the people who do that.
How have your filmmaking practices changed, both with CITIZENFOUR and other work, as a result of the scrutiny you now face? Is it more difficult for you to just do the work of being a filmmaker? We had a team assembled to work on the film here in Berlin before I went to Hong Kong. We’ve kept the outside world out as much as possible. It’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to do much press while I was working on the film. I just wanted to be in a creative space to find out what the film wanted to say and not repeat stories over and over or enter into a feedback loop.
But, in terms of work practices, I’m living in Germany. I had to leave the United States to make the film. That was a decision I had made before because I knew that I didn’t feel comfortable crossing the border with footage. This is, right now, my third fall in Berlin. And so, there’s that. But the team that I’m working with here in Berlin, the producer and editor and everyone, are fantastic. I’m totally thriving creatively. There’s no place I’d rather be and no people I’d rather work with. So, that’s not too much of a hardship.
What about on a practical level in terms of safeguarding your footage, or communicating, or doing all the other things a contemporary filmmaker does? All our material is encrypted and password-protected, and very few people have access to that. And that creates some hurdles. But since we’re all in the same place, it’s not that bad. I don’t carry a cell phone; I haven’t carried one since I came back from Hong Kong. My attitude has been: If they want to know where I am, they’re going to have to spend some money and send someone to find me, which I’m sure they have. I’m sure I’m under surveillance here. Mentally, it’s hard. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having this conversation in my home right now, just because I have to assume that it’s probably surveilled, at least for audio, at the minimum. And even though we’re not talking about anything super sensitive, you filter. You censor yourself. I censor myself more when I’m in my home than I do out meeting in a sort of random public place.
So, that’s definitely hard. Certain things I don’t like to write on my computer anymore because I feel that my computer is probably targeted. If I’m writing, I take it offline because I don’t need anyone in real time looking at what I write. There’s definitely a sense of being aware that I’m a person of interest for the intelligence community. It’s not just the U.S., but others. I’ve been told by friends that I should anticipate that they probably have assigned psychologists to each of us to figure out who we are and what we might do.
Psychologists? This was a friend who was also targeted and found out that there was somebody who was trying to profile him. And he says, “Yeah, there’s probably somebody who knows when you log on in the morning.” I think we would be foolish to not think that there are people who are paying very close attention to us. Creatively, it’s been great to work here, but it’s definitely been the most stressful project I’ve ever worked on. Working in Iraq was pretty easy in comparison to the experience of this one.
In interviews, Snowden has said his biggest worry is that people would not care about the revelations. And the movie documents his excitement at the dialogue the documents generate in the mainstream press. But what about you? Are you satisfied with the reaction to your work? Personally, I know many people who seem nonplussed by these revelations, people who have a kind of “I’m not doing anything wrong” attitude and don’t seem to care. If anyone knocked on anyone’s door and said, “Hey, we want to install cameras and microphones in your house,” nobody would say that’s okay. But many people have a computer that has a camera that can be used as a microphone. And I think that how people perceive the danger of the state having these powers has a lot to do with if they think the state is a threat to them in any way. If you’re Muslim-American in the United States, you know about surveillance. You know that the government is infiltrating and sending informants. I think journalists, activists, people in minority communities are probably more sensitive to the dangers of surveillance than people who maybe don’t perceive the state to be a threat to them. But they should, because democracy depends on certain freedoms — freedom of association, movement and speech.
You had funders for this film who must have supported this film before Snowden and then, presumably, some who came on after. What’s been your relationship to your funders over the course of the piece? They’ve been fantastic. I had this experience twice where I thought everyone was going to run in the other direction, and they just stood. They’ve been supportive in incredible ways. Who was on board first? We had Sundance support. We had Vital Projects, David Menschel, who funded also The Oath. Participant — Diane Weyermann and I have been friends for years. We’ve always been [saying], “We should do a film together.” But we never thought it would line up, my filmmaking and Participant. And then she was in Berlin right after Hong Kong. I said, “This is going to be a film really about journalism, and it’s going to show how journalism works.” And she [said], “We should do this.” She took it on in an incredible way because we were so under the radar. We weren’t writing anything down — we had no circulating treatment. People knew the story, but she had to go and basically say, “This is a film we should do. And, sorry, but I’ve got nothing to show you and nothing in writing.” And so, Participant was incredible. Ford Foundation also. Cara Mertes had just transitioned over there [from Sundance]. They’re onboard. It was just extraordinary having that kind of support. Honestly, this work is seriously risky.
In terms of the Snowden revelations, what for you was the biggest surprise? What specific piece? How massive it was. The level of secrecy, the complete indiscriminateness, the fact that their philosophy is, “We should collect everything and create a repository from which we can sift back in time.” It’s staggering what has emerged in the last 15 years. I think we haven’t begun to comprehend the possible negative consequences on every level of this kind of data collection and retention.
What about in terms of the response by political leaders and governments? There is a sense of disappointment, I think, on the level of political leaders and governments. I think that there is potentially movement in other places — technological movements. This is something Snowden and Glenn say often: There are policy things that need to be put in place to create constraints, but then there also needs to be technological solutions, and that involves encryption. You have to make it hard to spy on people. And I think we’ll see that. I think that this is why you have international companies like Facebook who are like, “Oh, this story is bad for us because we want a business model where people think we can be entrusted with [their data].”
There’s been a sea change there. Five years ago Mark Zuckerberg would never have said that. I know. I think there is a space for people who desire privacy in communication, and that space will get larger. And there will be companies that will satisfy that. I think that that is happening, but we don’t really see it on the surface. It’s happening more behind the scenes. I mean, you do have things like Google starting to use encryption for their cloud.
Do you think the desire for these tools is going to filter down to the average person? Will consumers demand privacy, or will a more elite group want more secure solutions and what’s granted to them will filter down to the rest of us? I think it will be both. People who run companies will realize that they don’t want to lose their customers, and that if customers want this, then they should provide it. And then I think you have younger people. If you realize that there can be a map that traced everyone you’ve talked to and everywhere you’ve been in the last five years, that’s not a positive thing for anyone.
I understand that there will be new reporting that drops into CITIZENFOUR at the last minute, in time for its New York Film Festival premiere. Do you anticipate that the film will change in the future, or be presented in other cuts, as new information comes to light? There are things that are part of [CITIZENFOUR] that will bleed outside, that will not be part of the narrative. There’s a section where you see the archive in the film, and there’s a document search. And that section might be different in different versions of the film. I haven’t decided yet. And then there’s also the ongoing reporting. It feels a bit less of a fixed narrative than other things that I’ve done.
What’s next? How has this project affected the future of your work? I feel like I want to do something a little bit different next. Narrative storytelling is great, but it’s not the only way that I’m interested in working. I’m interested in maybe somewhat of a more nonlinear way of communicating or expressing. And I’m definitely tired. I mean, it feels like each of these films has been a big struggle. I definitely feel like I could recharge a bit.