The Woman Who Hacked Hollywood
Laura Poitras’ name was once on terror watch lists. Now it’s on an Oscar. Here’s her personal journey.
It’s been almost ten years since Laura Poitras’ name has been on the NSA Watch List. Every time she returns to her home country, security agents wait for her, somewhere between the gate of the plane and the US Immigration booth. They take her away to a room, confiscate her gear, her notebooks, and her videos. They question her and copy her hard drives. This has happened to her at least forty times since 2006.
Her crime? To document history, the signs of our troubled times. To make her point, she never lectures but uses cinema-vérité: I want to understand big issues through personal stories that you could reflect on. My work is about filming people in horrible situations trying to do the right thing.
It’s not just her work. It’s her life.
Laura is born in Boston to Jim Poitras, an MIT graduate and engineer; and Pat, a nurse. She initially trains as a chef and becomes an apprentice at L’Espalier in Boston, and at Masa, the French cuisine mecca in San Francisco. For ten years, she works fourteen-hour days and learns the demands and rigors of the job. She exhausts herself checking ingredients and temperatures, burrowing into the chemical mysteries of cooking. This is when I learned to deal with uncertainty. But those mysteries cannot satisfy an urge to speak truth. Gastronomy can be many things, but you cannot talk about tragedy. There is nothing that stays. I realized I wanted to talk about important things.
She takes part-time film classes at the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute, before continuing her studies in New York. One day she is in the city editing Flag Wars, her project about the gentrification of an African-American district by a trendy, white, gay community, when she receives an email alerting her that a plane just hit the World Trade Center. She leaves her Upper West Side building, walks downtown as the Towers fall, one after the other.
In the days that follow, she installs her camera close to Ground Zero, but decides to flip it. Instead of filming the ruins, she captures inhabitants as they discover them, using long stills and extreme slow motion shots in the style of the artist Bill Viola. The result is the experimental O’say can you see, an elegy to lost opportunity after a catastrophe, which now plays in a couple of museums. In New York, the street was filled with compassion. We could have used that energy for rule of law. We chose violence instead.
‘You have to be ready to venture out’
Laura can’t look away as Bush Administration prepares the American people for war. She absorbs the terms: Weapons of Mass Destruction, Patriot Act, Axis of Evil. That was schizophrenic and crazy. Starting from there, information became very abstract and removed. September 11 created a power vacuum that itself created unintended consequences. Media collapsed after 9/11 and became propaganda. That was scary. I wanted to say something about it, to articulate the dangers that I saw and translate it into human terms.
Laura wants to head for Iraq, the new theater of operations, far removed from the public eye. Defying her journalist friends’ warnings, she contacts General Herbert L. Altshuler, then Major General in charge of the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (USACAPOC), and asks to be embedded. She argues she is aiming to create a primary document on the historical nation building process and the first democratic elections. We met the same day the Abu Ghraib pictures leaked. I guess for the Army, nothing could have been worse than that. General Altshuler lets Laura in.
In Baghdad, with no preset plan, she films constantly what she witnesses, UN and US Army briefings, life in the Green Zone, the street view from inside a tank. I like the uncertainty. When I start a project, I do not know where it will go or where I will be. You have to venture out. If you are patient, things will happen. Like coincidences. All my best scenes come after coincidences.
Laura wants to report on the conditions of prisoners in detention, who were herded into camps under the desert sun. She is shooting the surroundings of the Abu Ghraib jail when a group of Iraqi human rights activists get out of a bus. Among them, a doctor works to evaluate the basic medical needs of the sick through a wire fence. A child calls out, trying to catch his attention. He is nine years old. Laura captures the scene and find her lead character in her documentary: Doctor Riyadh al-Adhadh is a Sunni candidate for elections. For six months, she shadows him everywhere, from medical consultations to political meetings, in his kitchen, with his family.
I find the plot of my films by following people. And she has talents for it. Laura is a tall, white American woman in a Muslim country at war with hers. She fades into the background and earns the trust of the people she meets, all while her camera is still rolling. She never judges. It is her hallmark as a filmmaker. I ground myself in personal stories. I try to disappear and then understand what those people teach us about the situation.
She records Doctor Riyadh’s journey, his own battle to heal people, to protect his country, his values, his loved ones. His journey is the story of a population that does not know what to do with this nation-building process, imported from America, like the bombs that rip cities and citizens. Barely seen nor known, Laura imbues emotions and flesh to the disembodied and antiseptic reality presented by news organizations. She tells the fear and the compromise. I was following this other character, a private contractor in charge of securing the Iraqi elections who needed weapons, a lot of them. We headed to Kurdistan and I was waiting in my hotel room when he asked if he could borrow it for a business meeting. I agreed but asked to film the scene. They accepted as long as my camera stayed on him, not on his business partner, a Peshmerga officer. And that’s how I filmed a black market gun deal.
Dollars and weapons change hands. Money flourishes on hatred. Or is that the other way around ? “Oil is a curse. Violence will increase, not decrease,”says Doctor Riyadh, as the camera rolls. Laura witnesses it all and never renders judgement. Through personal stories, she weaves an inconvenient history: in the name of war on terror, a war on freedom. In a way, I am still working on this topic.
My Country, My Country, Laura’s second film, is nominated for an Oscar. Shown in military schools, it wins praise from odd quarters: the US Army. They thought I was fair.
She moves forward with her exploration of Post 9/11 America and goes to Yemen, on the trail of two brothers-in-law who both worked for Osama bin Laden. Abu Jandal, his ex bodyguard, now drives a taxi in Sanaa. Salim Hamdan, his former personal driver, is being held in Guantanamo. She depicts their two parallel lives made of jihad, military commissions, and dogma.
The Oath, is released in 2010 and wins the Excellence in Cinematography Award (Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival, shows the radicalization at work on both sides of the conflict. All through, her heart aches. I lost all my naïve ideals in Yemen and Guantanamo: I knew there we were not addressing the real issue. We were not learning. Like My Country, My Country, Laura’s film offers her view of the world to come: the West barricaded in, ISIS barbarians at the gate, the moral void, the assault on civil liberties and justice. ”With Abu Grahib and Guantanamo we could not have done more to unravel our violence. Before September 11th, there were some fanatics and terrorists, for sure. But far fewer than today”.
From Rio to Berlin via Assange
And as an artist, a journalist or as a citizen, she is no threat to her government. The Constitution protects her speech and her ability to move around. But after the Patriot Act, neither the First Amendment or the Fourth seems to exist in airports. Along with Guantanamo, they prove that War on terror has made its way onto American soil.
The painful experiences she has been suffering there since the release of My country My country could have intimidated and stopped her. They do not. They nurture her interest, spur her reflections on the harassment she experiences because of her films. Laura learns to deal with pressure, to protect her work. She begins a documentary on the state of surveillance. She looks for non-fiction characters whose story will cast light on the frightening spectre of surveillance.
She has been following Glenn Greenwald’s work for years. A civil rights lawyer turned blogger, turned freelancer and independent columnist, he has been vociferous in his defense of Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) who passed millions of classified information to Wikileaks. The former intelligence analyst is kept in solitary confinement, in his underwear, in a 6’ x 8’ cell lit with neon lighting, 23 hours a day. He is deprived of natural light and time referents, pushed to madness.
In April 2011, Laura films Greenwald in Rio, where he lives. She also meets Jacob Appelbaum, a security expert and a hacker’s hero since he co-founded TOR, a system allowing people to communicate anonymously. Appelbaum is also a Manning defender. Like Laura, he is systematically detained and interrogated upon arrival in his native United States.
In 2012, she interviews the whistleblowers known as the “NSA Four” (Thomas Drake, Kirk Wiebe, Edward Loomis and William Binney). In August 2012, on the New York Times website, she publishes her film The Program focusing on Binney’s testimony on NSA. In 2001, Binney, one of NSA’s best mathematicians and code breakers, resigned from the Agency after 32 years of loyal services, to denounce the Stellar Wind program. Approved shortly after 9/11, Stellar Wind enables NSA to collect and link private information (emails, internet activity, localizations) of any American citizen.
Laura flies to London to meet Julian Assange. On her return, she is detained for four hours at the Newark airport. She is ushered into an interrogation room. She takes out her pen to document the incident. The agents tell her to put it away. Her pen, they say, is a dangerous weapon.
To finish her work, she chooses exile. On Appelbaum’s advice, she moves to Berlin. Life under the former East German spy agency, Stasi, has influenced legislators and citizens alike. Privacy laws, reasonable rents, and the vibrant Chaos Computer Club all make it a perfect hub for artists, hackers and free culture activists. She drafts a list of people she needs to complete her project, including a film editor.
At the top of her list is Mathilde Bonnefoy, whose film Run Lola Run she admires. Mathilde has been living in Berlin for twenty years but meets with Laura in Paris, where she is trying to make a comeback on the French cinema scene. “At the time, I didn’t want to do any more editing. My plan was to go into directing,” explains Mathilde. “But I changed my mind when I met her. You can tell she is someone you can trust.” Mathilde and her husband, German independent film producer Dirk Wilutzky, offer Laura their place in Berlin while they stay in Paris. In March 2013, their neighbors move out. Laura takes the flat. When Wilutzky and Mathilde come back, the two women start the editing of Laura’s “impressive material” according to Mathilde, in Dirk’s home office.
Meanwhile, Laura has been receiving several emails from a someone who calls himself Citizenfour.
He claims to be in the NSA, and to have information for her. He has also contacted Greenwald but this has gone nowhere: The journalist has been too busy to comply with the encryption procedures imposed by Citizenfour to communicate and access ‘information which would be of interest to [him].” Laura, though, is willing to master the protocols of secure cryptography that Citizenfour demands. This source, she hopes, may complete her already significant list of testimonies about the surveillance state. But it also could become highly corrosive. “Laura tells me about Citizen Four in June to warn me,” says Mathilde. “If I go any further on that matter, I would be put under surveillance. She tells me it would be OK for me to walk away, and that she would understand. I refuse.”
Her new source exchanges secure emails with her. The first document he sends her is proof that Verizon sends client information on a daily basis to the NSA.
Her new source wants to meet her. In Hong Kong. He is ready to give her explosive information on the Agency practices of mass surveillance of its own citizens and allies. She persuades Greenwald to come. He is accompanied by his colleague, Ewan McAshill, a staff writer from The Guardian.
They meet the source in his room at the Mira Hotel. She wants to film him. When he agrees, she understands the man has decided to trust his life to her. I am in love with being with people in pivotal decisions. I like the uncertainty of it. But what happened to me with Snowden is something I could never have imagined.
Snowden. His name is Snowden.
After a few hours of tense huis clos in the hotel room, Greenwald publishes his first article on the basis of evidence from the former NSA employee. The clock is now running before the NSA and its minions, or the triads, get to them. Laura films Snowden’s confession. He faces the camera and gives testimony: family name, first name, age, profession, motivation. And evidence of the some of most shocking revelations in the history of the American Intelligence Agencies. The Washington Post, the only media company to have commissioned Poitras, releases the video on its homepage on June 6th. The video, a full frontal assault on the NSA, goes viral around the world and is screened in Times Square.
Snowden gives Laura a letter. It is about things she should know in case something happens to him. I promise him I would disclose his documents. He vanishes and they lose contact, each absorbed in the maze of Hong Kong.
Laura lays low in Hong Kong for a week, makes copies, then encrypts her footage and documents. She gives a backup to a lawyer, just in case. She destroys the original files and hard drives, keeps her source documents with her. She tries to fade again in this background. She hopes Snowden would contact her, that they would meet again. I felt vulnerable, so exposed, still reeling from the whole experience. I was angry with the Guardian, who had done nothing to protect us.
From Rio, Greenwald urges her to leave. We were both aware of the power of the information we had. Petrified, she goes to the airport, pays cash for a one way ticket to Berlin, via Dubai. Holding on tight to the biggest leak in the NSA history, she goes through security, airport police and customs. Without incident.
Meanwhile, from the basement of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Julian Assange sends his Wikileaks lieutenant Sarah Harrison to Hong Kong. She finds Snowden, struggles to find him a safe place, then exfiltrates him. They are stopped in Moscow where, after 39 days in the airport transit area, he is granted a one-year temporary asylum.
‘The adrenaline rush was too much’
In late June 2013, Laura lands in Berlin, in a state of shock. “She had eleven or fourteen hours of material (footage) but can’t remember what she’d filmed. The adrenaline rush was too much,” explains Mathilde.
When I came back from Hong Kong, I knew it was too big for me alone. Until then, Laura had always been the only producer for her work but now she asks Dirk to produce the film with her. But first, she is totally involved in making the Snowden documents public. She spends every single minute helping Greenwald and does not touch her footage until December 2013. Mathilde starts the editing alone. Most of the scenes of the initial 40-minute rough-cut, those with Binney, Assange and Applebaum are shortened or withdrawn. Instead, the film is eaten up by Snowden. His words. His face. His self-control. His almost looney strength. Mathilde mixes the series of interviews and cinéma vérité sequences until the film takes the outlines of a noir thriller. There is rhythm, music, suspense, and a hero prepared to die in the fight against the infernal machine. The movie will be called Citizenfour.
Yet, Mathilde knows something is missing. The editor wants to reveal what is not seen, the intimate, what is at stake there: the revelations of a man to himself, a whistleblower at the very moment he has decided to commit. Mathilde wants to suggest the very relationship that is building at that precise moment, between him and the journalists he alone has chosen. Avoiding mass media, Snowden has carefully chosen his ‘recipients’ — for their integrity.
“I didn’t choose you,’ Snowden says to Laura when she asks why has picked her. “You chose yourself.”
To express that unbelievable moment of commitment in the face of unfathomable peril, Mathilde begs Laura to reveal herself, to overrule her mad private instincts and insert herself into the scene so, “We follow her, step by step, as she discovers this man and so that we share her experience.” Laura is loathe to expose herself. Applying the rules of documentary film making to the letter, she is never seen or heard in her own films. The ghost behind the camera. Everything is suggested, never explained: Viewers need to be able to find his position, to interpret in their own way, to take what they see and put it into perspective, so they can reflect on it.
Mathilde does not give up: “It takes me months to convince Laura to let me use a mini-sequence, a subjective shot, the one we see her in the mirror of the hotel room,” she says. “Just as we would see ourselves in the mirror.”
Laura prints out some of Citizenfour’s emails. “I am impressed by the beauty of his sentences, loaded with existentialist thoughts,” says Mathilde. Convinced these could become central piece to the story she is editing, she initially envisions Snowden himself narrating. But first she needs a guiding voice to calculate her editing. Laura. Laura reads the emails out loud for her. Laura. Her voice — bravely articulate but clearly damaged — is… Laura. Ecstatic, Mathilde sees the solution. Laura’s presence in the film will be the narration. “Laura is the vector of the whole story, which she will tell in and by her own voice,” says Mathilde.
At no point does Laura think of awards. Instead of Oscars, she is envisioning prison gates. I am too obsessed by the bad scenarios. For a record ninth time in his presidency, Obama uses the Espionage Act to incriminate Snowden. Could it happen to her? If it did, the media would be of no help, she fears. The press supported the smear campaign launched by the United States government against Assange. They were successful in demonizing him. Because her regard for the convention press is so low, Laura and Greenwald work on one story after the other, to trust a media outlet one story at a time and never share their documents as a whole with any third party. The documents remain protected, but the ability to edit and publish them is drastically slowed.
Greenwald and Laura decide to create their own media outlet, to minimize time constraints and maximize their freedom. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, reaches out to Greenwald and Laura, and puts $250 million on the table to launch The Intercept, an online media site dedicated to their work. They all start from scratch and to Laura’s despair, it slows down the publishing process even more.
She worries. Edward Snowden’s Russian visa is about to expire. The revelations are everywhere. The Guardian and The Washington Post both receive the Pulitzer Prize for work based on the NSA documents. But the much expected massive outrage, either from politicians or populations, does not come. And the surveillance continues. Mass surveillance is a business plan. It will be difficult to dismantle because it represents a huge market. With an estimated annual worth of $40 billion, the military-technology complex is unregulated. Just like killer drones, probably the topic of her next film. On that matter too, we aren’t faced with the reality of them because we don’t get shown the images.
Laura Greenwald and Citizenfour are proving there is an alternative to resignation. But there is a price to pay. In our jobs, there is a direct link between the risks we take and what we can accomplish. Only taking such risks, can one control the narrative, the material, your choices, your story. The media sphere starts to shift, little by little. Too little. The fact that we accept torture and state surveillance is a problem in our profession. The press is no longer a counter-power. Glenn and I put pressure on journalists to make it more difficult to ignore the government censorship.
In February, Laura travels to the United States to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, where Citizenfour is nominated for an Oscar. No one’s agents are waiting for her as she gets off the plane. No one at the immigration booth.
At the Dolby Theater, she goes onstage to pick up her award with Greenwald and Dirk and Mathilde. Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s fiancé, stands behind them, silent, her hands on her gown, looking defiantly at the camera. To protect her, Edward left without a word. But the world’s press swarmed down on her. Lindsay had left Hawaï’s beautiful beaches, where the couple met and set up home, to go into embattled exile with her fiancé in Moscow. One of the hardest things for me was imagining what Lindsay had gone through, so I asked her to come with us to the Oscars ceremony. She left Moscow, took a flight back to the US and came on stage to tell the world she isn’t scared. This award from the Academy acknowledges the story of people fighting the totalitarian tendencies of a state in a non-fiction field. To give exposure to those people in this way is to offer them the best protection.
If Hollywood is some back door to our awareness, Citizenfour may well have broken it down. Laura Poitras has hacked into Hollywood — in the true sense of the word: she has used an operating system, cinema, to make it work for her benefits. By denouncing state surveillance, she has made an assault on our ignorance. Our greatest enemy is not necessarily the NSA but our own apathy.
After the ceremony, Laura leaves the US for Paris for the French premiere of Citizenfour, At JFK, she hands her passport and boarding pass to the TSA agent. He scans the document and lifts his head to look at her. “Seriously? Laura Poitras?” he says. “I watched Citizenfour this weekend!” He smiles and gives her back the papers. Laura pulls out her Oscar statuette from her bag to run it through the X-ray machine.
That’s when I really feel victorious.
And then she slips into the corridors of the airport, headed for her plane. In plain sight.
Flore Vasseur — March 2015
A shorter version of this story was initially published in Society in France. It was re edited for Medium and translated with the help of Stephanie Poletti.