newyorker.com: Laura Poitras
She comes from a wealthy, conservative family outside Boston. Her educational background is in art and social theory—she has a degree from the New School, in New York, where she was influenced by the cinéma-vérité documentaries of the Maysles brothers, D. A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman. She had already made one full-length documentary, “Flag Wars,” about the conflict between gay and black residents of a gentrifying neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. It won several awards and taught her that there was nothing she’d “rather do than be behind the camera with people, in real time, confronting life decisions.
She moved to Berlin in the fall of 2012, after years of being repeatedly stopped at airports by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. (She thought it might have something to do with a film about Iraq that she released in 2006.) Prenzlauer Berg, where Poitras has her studio, is Berlin’s Williamsburg; the coffee shops are upscale and have play areas inside. The neighborhood has become the center of the German capital’s small community of surveillance expats.
In 2006, federal agents began stopping Poitras at airports as she was leaving or entering the U.S., asking questions about her travels and her work; on one occasion, they confiscated her electronic equipment. She began taking notes during the interrogations, and argued when she was told to stop. Altogether, she says, she was detained at least forty times between 2006 and 2012, without ever being told why. It might have had to do with a 2004 incident in Baghdad: American soldiers saw her filming from Dr. Riyadh’s roof during a firefight in the neighborhood, and, according to an article by Peter Maass in the Times Magazine, an officer wrote a report suggesting that she might have had foreknowledge of the attack. (She denied having any, and no evidence suggests otherwise.)
Poitras didn’t like to speculate about the reasons. Her feeling was: “I’ve done nothing to deserve being put on a watch list.” She also didn’t want to exaggerate the danger. “Let’s just be honest,” she told me. “If I had darker skin, or was carrying a different passport, the cast of guilt, the shadow, would go a lot longer.” Nevertheless, she felt that she had been sucked into an unaccountable system: once her name was flagged, her life changed, and she could never get an explanation for it. The experience led her to adopt extreme measures with computer and phone security and, eventually, to move to Berlin. She no longer believed that she could keep privileged material safe when travelling to and from the U.S. The airport interrogations ended only after Greenwald wrote a column for Salon about them, in 2012.
Snowden urged her to find a collaborator for publishing the documents, which were complex and voluminous, and she agreed to do so. She didn’t care about sharing, or even losing, a scoop—the documents were a print story. She was interested in Snowden. She wanted to know what drove him to risk everything. “Unlike my previous films, this was somebody I had built a dialogue with, and wanted to meet,” she told me. “Because I cared.” In May, 2013, Poitras flew to New York and awaited word from Snowden, who told her to meet him in Hong Kong.
Snowden asked her to involve Greenwald, who at the time was a columnist for the Guardian. In fact, he had approached Greenwald before Poitras, but Greenwald hadn’t made the effort to install encryption software for e-mails, and Snowden had moved on. Greenwald was contacted again, and in late May he flew from Rio to New York. Now Poitras had a partner. “Glenn, to his credit, as soon as he was in the loop, he was on the plane,” Poitras said.