In early January, 2013 filmmaker Laura Poitras received an email from someone who identified himself as Citizenfour. The emailer promised to prove that America was using electronic and phone communications intercepts to engage in a level of spying that was almost unimaginable and had long been denied by government agencies.
Over the next 5 months, as she engaged in carefully encrypted conversations with Citizenfour, Poitras, who was already working on a documentary on government spying, exercised extreme caution.
“He didn’t seem like a crazy person,” she says. “But I did worry about entrapment.”
Poitras had reason to worry. She had been detained several times by authorities upon entering the country and questioned about her 2 previous documentaries My Country, My Country and The Oath, both of which examined American post-9/11 foreign policy.
Finally, Citizenfour agreed to meet in Hong Kong with Poitras and fellow journalist Glen Greenwald. It was there, in a Hong Kong hotel room, that Edward Snowden, a private security contractor for the National Security Administration, began revealing shocking disclosures about the reach and extent of NSA’s surveillance of private communications.
While Snowden talked and Greenwald scribbled, Poitras kept her camera pointed and created the engaging, engrossing documentary Citizenfour.
One day before the film went into general release, Poitras appeared at a special premier showing at the Landmark Theater here to discuss her latest work.
Poitras said one of her original goals in filming Snowden was “to find out who this person is who had taken things to the point of no return”.
“He was calm and articulate. He had made this choice (to come forward), but there really was a palpable sense of fear,” Poitras told the theater-filling crowd.
Poitras said as a filmmaker-journalist she realized that while she would be filming in a cinema verite style, she would also need to create something compelling enough “to be watched in 5 years, in 10 years.”
“There are probably a lot of (government) people who aren’t happy with this film,” she said. But asked by an audience remember if the NSA spying made America a low-level police state, Poitras said she didn’t believe it was. “I’m able to do the work that I do, so that indicates that we are not. But the dangers are always there,” she explained.
Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, who has written extensively on security issues, served as moderator and asked Poitras if Citizenfour will complete her work on post-911 reporting.
“I wish we could all move into something else,” Poitras said. “I was hoping the moral drift would move back to what we are supposed to stand for.”
And then, of course, there was the big question – was Snowden, who remains in exile in Russia with his girlfriend, a heroic whistleblower or a dangerous traitor to his country?
“He felt that what the government was doing was something the public should have a right to discuss,” Poitras said. “I wanted to show his reasoning, his motivations, and his decision. It is up to people to decide.”
When my wife Judy and I moved to Crystal City, just 3 Metro stops from Washington, DC, in 2011, I began writing a blog The Prices Do DC which detailed what we were seeing and doing in the district. Here is another repost from that blog. Hope you enjoy these Prices Do DC blasts from the past.