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Edward Snowden in CitizenfourPraxis Films

Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras watches the watchers

The Edward Snowden documentary-maker talks espionage, the NSA and being ‘lit up like a Christmas tree’ in the intelligence community

Citizenfour is a fly-on-the-wall documentary like nothing you’ve ever witnessed. It follows US whistleblower Edward Snowden as he leaked the earthshattering revelations about NSA and GCHQ surveillance to the world. Filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras filmed Snowden over the course of the eventful week in Hong Kong, producing a documentary that skillfully combines cuticle-chewing thriller tension with real-life espionage. Poitras sat down to talk to us about being "lit up like a Christmas tree" in the intelligence community and why she still won't travel to the UK.

How easy was it to convince Snowden to go on camera? 

Laura Poitras: We were corresponding by email for a long time, and I thought he would always be anonymous, but at some point he said that he was going to take responsibility as the source for the leaks. That’s when I said, “Well I want to meet you then and I want to bring my camera”. His response first was no, because he said consistently that he didn’t want to be the story. I told him that he was going to be the story whether or not (he wanted it to be). People were going to ask who he was and his motivation, and that really only he could answer that question.

He seems incredibly relaxed in front of the camera, given the situation.

Laura Poitras: I’ve been doing this kind of filmmaking for a long time – cinéma vérité, where you film things as they happen. You know he’d crossed the point of no return and his goal at that moment was to help me, Glenn and you and the journalists understand why he made the decision and understand the technology of that. For him, the camera was kind of secondary in a certain way. The most important thing was that he’d tell us the information that he thought we should know, in the small amount of time we had. I think that he was kind of in a bit of a Zen state at that point.

Why do you think he chose to out himself? He could have stayed anonymous, right?

Laura Poitras: I think he didn’t want to – he didn’t want to be bullied or have to hide, and he’d seen the history of other people who came before and what happened to them. I think he felt these were issues that the public should know and that he wasn’t going to hide that. He probably knew that there would be a massive leak investigation and if he tried to hide his identity, a lot of other people would have their lives taken apart.

Your lawyers advised against travelling to the UK for the premiere of Citizenfour. Does that still stand? 

Laura Poitras: Yeah, I’m in Germany right now. Given the UK law of both the Official Secrets Act and the Terrorism Act, which is what they used to detain (Glenn Greenwald’s partner) David Miranda, my lawyers have advised me not to travel. That’s where things stand. It’s just not worth the risk. I recently did a story on how GCHQ is targeting engineers of telecoms in Germany, so I’m continuing publishing on what the GCHQ is doing in Europe and other countries.

What I find weirdest about how the NSA and GCHQ revelations been received by the British public is that there’s a kind of attitude of “well I didn’t do anything wrong, so I don’t care”. How do you respond to that? 

Laura Poitras: I think it’s a little bit disappointing in a way, particularly because George Orwell is from the UK, you know? 1984 is the most brilliant depiction of what can happen when states engage in that kind of total surveillance. But I have also been a bit surprised how the press has sort of followed these D-notice (government requests to news editors not to publish items on issues of national security), and not followed up on some of the reporting.

There’s a great pay-off at the end of the film which underlines Snowden’s point that he wants to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. Did you always know that was going to be the end of the film?

Laura Poitras: I always did know that this film would not end on a note of things are resolved – for me it’s like, I wanted it to push outside the frame and carry on and not feel like you go to a movie because I don’t think that’s the world that we’re living in right now. I think that the risk for other sources and whistleblowers are very real, and they’re continuing to investigate what journalists are doing. I think it’s dark times.

Are you still in touch with Edward? Is this a story that you’re following up on actively for a potential sequel?

Laura Poitras: I mean I’m continuing to report and he’s the source, so I’m staying in touch with him about reporting that I’m working on. In terms of ongoing filming, it’s too soon to say. For me, the end of the film is not saying “to be continued”, it’s saying “this isn’t over”. The concerns that he had are still very much unresolved.

What do you think about corporations like Facebook and Google and how they tie to the whole culture of surveillance?

Laura Poitras: I think that there are concerns about the amount of information that these companies have about us... But I also think that it’s something different when governments have this sort of information, because governments have the ability to do different types of things with this information. They’re not separate. Intelligence agencies can use what they learn from Facebook to find out people’s social relationships, etc. So I hope that what Snowden has revealed will create a shift of consciousness, and that people will start to think twice about how much information we hand over to those companies.

Snowden first contacted you because you were already on a watchlist. Do you feel like you’ve been subject to extra attention now you’ve worked with him?

Laura Poitras: Nothing overt. I haven’t seen anything, but I know from other people who have connections in the intelligence community that I’m lit up like a Christmas tree.

Is it something always in the back of your mind?

Laura Poitras: There was definitely a very tense period after Hong Kong. I’ve heard rumors; there were conversations about whether or not they should raid our homes simultaneously to try to stop the publication. I’m not surprised that those things were discussed, but I don’t feel that I physically have people (following me) – or at least I don’t see them! (laughs)

Citizenfour is out today in UK cinemas.