By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Laura Poitras’ skill and boldness as a documentary filmmaker have gained her Oscar and Emmy nominations, Sundance Film Festival honors and a public TV showcase, even if her work fell short of making a “Super Size Me” splash.
But her role as the first point of contact for disclosures about U.S. surveillance programs has drawn the glare of attention to the independent filmmaker who, abruptly, has pushed documentaries deeper into the realm of journalistic immediacy.
For peers and backers of Poitras, the 2012 recipient of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, it’s unsurprising that she has seized a story worth telling. However, her crucial involvement with a confidential source and two newspapers on the same big exclusive is extraordinary.
“She’s incredibly driven and determined and she doesn’t let obstacles get in the way,” said Simon Kilmurry, executive producer of PBS’ documentary series “POV,” a home to Poitras’ work. “She really works at the intersection of journalist and artist and storyteller.”
Poitras, 49, who has said she was Edward Snowden’s first media contact on the story she helped break, shared bylines on The Washington Post and The Guardian of London articles revealing vast and secret phone and Internet surveillance. She was behind the camera for a gripping video interview, posted online, in which the former spy agency contractor responsible for the leaks calmly defended his actions.
She told Salon.com this week that she has more footage of Snowden taken in Hong Kong, where he has sought refuge, and which she intends to use in a film. Poitras has previously discussed working on a documentary on state surveillance and whistleblowers, the final part of her trilogy on the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Snowden was drawn to her because of her work on government snooping and the personal fallout that’s resulted, including what she called persistent U.S. “border harassment” during her travels, Poitras said.
“You probably don’t like how this system works. I think you can tell the story,” she recounted Snowden telling her. Their early exchanges had cloak-and-dagger overtones, including his request that they communicate in encrypted type.
He first emailed her anonymously in January and, independently, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald around February, she told Salon. She contacted her other collaborator, Barton Gellman for the Post, about the same time to get the experienced journalist’s assessment of Snowden’s legitimacy.
In a statement, Gellman said his connection to the story “began with Laura,” a friend who had been a fellow with him at New York University, and later included extensive conversations between him and Snowden. Greenwald, who didn’t reply to a request for comment, also is a friend of the filmmaker.
Poitras was guarded with Salon in detailing how the reporting unfolded, saying, “I feel a certain need to be cautious about not wanting to do the work for the government.” She added she wasn’t ready to tell the “whole story now. … I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller.”
Kirsten Johnson, who works with Poitras as a cinematographer, has been in touch with her.
“She is doing well, and I think she feels the responsibility of the importance of this historical event,” Johnson said Thursday.
With the National Security Agency revelations, Poitras has taken the lead on a growing trend in which documentarians are rivaling the speed of “history-in-a-hurry” news reporting while they develop more detailed film accounts.
“Laura has expanded her capacity to explore the story even as she is making the story,” said Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program and a longtime producer and supporter. “She’s one of the most remarkable filmmakers working today.”
Other documentarians have changed the national conversation, said veteran filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald (no relation to Glenn Greenwald). But the one-two-three punch of combining traditional news outlets, social media and video “is quite extraordinary and my hat goes off” to Poitras and the newspaper reporters, said Greenwald, who recently completed the film “War on Whistleblowers.”
“We used to wait five, 10, 15 years before we did a documentary,” he said. “Now we’re right in the middle and it gives you the ability to affect the story. The old model of waiting for the finished film is less and less important. It’s more about getting pieces out.”
Not all are swayed by the approach; one observer is downright cynical.
Marvin Kalb, professor emeritus of press and public policy at Harvard University, said he could think of no precedent for a situation where a documentarian drove a story in this manner. His gut feeling is that “she’s blown it” and should have kept this information for herself and her documentary, “and in one glorious moment have all of it,” said Kalb, a longtime reporter for CBS and NBC News.
It might not have been her choice, he said: Snowden may have been driving the decision to get the material out as quickly as possible.
Poitras hasn’t been one to shrink from a challenge or challenging material. “Flag Wars” was her 2003 Peabody-winning look at urban gentrification; the Oscar-nominated 2006 “My Country, My Country” examined Iraqi life under U.S. occupation, and 2010’s “The Oath” was about the effect of anti-terrorism measures on two Middle Eastern men, including one of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguards.
The latter two films are part of her post-9/11 series, topics that have earned her industry respect if not the attention given less-weighty films such as Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” account of a health-challenging month on a McDonald’s menu.
In a “filmmaker statement” posted on the “POV” website in connection with “The Oath,” Poitras said she intended to create an “on-the-ground record that can help us understood this history as time passes. I believe the world will be grappling with the tragedy of 9/11 and America’s reaction to the attack for generations to come.”
She’s on the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which describes itself as helping to defend and support journalism “focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.”
Her fellow board members include foundation co-founder Daniel Ellsberg of 1970s Pentagon Papers fame and the Guardian’s Greenwald, who interviewed Snowden for the online videos.
Greenwald, a former contributing writer for Salon, told the website that Poitras is “easily one of the bravest and most brilliant people I’ve ever met.”
She shares with the reporter a distrust of government intrusion. He’s the author of three books in which he argues the government has trampled on personal rights in the name of protecting national security.
Poitras joined the foundation in part because “she felt her own journalism was being chilled by the fact that his surveillance had happened to her. … She’s suffered at the hands of unnecessary and overbearing government surveillance herself,” said Trevor Timm, foundation executive director and co-founder.
For more than six years, since starting her 9/11-related work that often took her to the Middle East, Poitras has said that she’s been repeatedly questioned by U.S. officials here and abroad.
“I’ve actually lost count of how many times I’ve been detained at the border, but I think it’s around 40 times,” she said in an April 2012 appearance on “Democracy Now!”, an independent news program that airs on public broadcasting TV and radio stations and elsewhere.
When she was questioned by Department of Homeland Security officials in London around that time, “I told them I was a journalist and my work was protected and I wasn’t going to discuss it,” she said on the news program.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it is prohibited from discussing specific cases due to privacy laws. U.S. citizens returning from foreign travel cannot be denied entry into the country and are not considered “detained” unless there’s an outstanding warrant for their arrest. Travelers can be referred for further inspection “for a variety of reasons to include identity verification, intent of travel, and confirmation of admissibility,” the agency said.
“She was incredibly patient with the process until the people who were questioning her started to (imply) it didn’t matter if she would answer or not: they would get their answers electronically,” said her colleague, Johnson. For Poitras, that was a deep infringement, she said.
An interview request emailed this week to Poitras’ New York-based Praxis Films generated what appeared to be an automatic reply from her account: “I’m traveling and don’t have regular email access. Thanks for your patience.”
“She’s an incredibly warm person, soft-spoken, very smart, but she’s a private person and doesn’t like to be out in front of the camera,” Timm said. “She doesn’t like to make the story about her. I can understand why she’s been hesitant to talk.”
In online interviews given before the surveillance story broke, Poitras comes across as low-key and cautious despite her willingness to put herself at risk for her work. In a 2010 clip posted by the New York Times she recounts how the prospect of meeting with bin Laden’s former bodyguard in Yemen came with “‘danger’ flashing signs.”
And while she is dogged in her pursuit of information that doesn’t mean she has an agenda, said Kilmurry of “POV.”
“I think she’s really driven by curiosity about the issues in which she gets involved rather than having a particular perspective or narrative at the end,” he said. “She’s open to where the story takes her and having her own perspective challenged or changed, as she hopes the audience is, too.”
Johnson, who is working with Poitras on her final Sept. 11 film about surveillance and whistleblowers, can’t predict when it will be finished.
“There’s no timeline. That’s what’s remarkable about her. She really does let the story lead her,” Johnson said.
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