Laura Poitras

“Citizenfour” director
Laura Poitras


Few people understand what it means to be under surveillance (and how to fight back!) as well as Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Laura Poitras Overview ‧ read
Citizenfour | Oscar-winner Laura Poitras on Edward Snowden
She’s been detained, placed on a no-fly list, and had her devices seized by US security agencies. All without explanation.

But the joke’s on them. Because all the unfair harassment she’s been subjected to has led Poitras to produce truly revelatory journalism and films. And without her, the world might never have learned about the NSA’s mass surveillance programs.

Intrigued? Here’s our profile of Laura Poitras.

Raised a free thinker

Laura Poitras was born in 1964 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents Pat and Jim were wealthy but giving people - they founded the The Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a $20 million donation in 2007.

The Poitras family were a free-thinking bunch too, judging by the school they chose for their child. Laura got her education at Sudbury Valley School, an establishment that is democratically run by its students and where children are free to do whatever they want with their time. No wonder the US government’s secret surveillance programs don’t sit well with Poitras today. After finishing at Sudbury, Poitras studied at the San Francisco Art Institute under experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. She moved to New York City in 1992 and graduated from the city’s New School for Public Engagement in 1996.

Piling up film awards

Poitras’s filmmaking career was a critical success from the very start. She won a Peabody Award for her first documentary , Flag Wars, in 2003. Her documentary about life for Iraqis under US occupation, My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Oscar in 2006. The Oath, Poitras’s 2010 film about two men who become caught up in America’s ‘War on Terror,’ won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance . Laura Poitras was clearly a filmmaker with a gift for bringing important subjects to the public’s attention.

It was in 2012 that Poitras made her first film about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) secret surveillance of private citizens. The short documentary The Program was based on interviews with NSA whistleblower William Binney, who helped to design the ‘Stellar Wind’ program. But this was only the beginning of Poitras’s work to expose NSA spying.

We’ve got a file on you

Perhaps it was Laura Poitras’s own experience of being monitored by the US government that pushed her film directing career in that direction. Poitras says she was held at international borders more than 50 times between 2006 and 2012, for hours at a time. She was told she was on a ‘no-fly list’ and claims her electronic equipment was confiscated.

Poitras responded by exercising her legal right to see the files the state kept on her, by making a Freedom of Information Act request. Her request received no answer, so Poitras sued the US government in July 2015. The lawsuit was still to be decided in January 2016.

The first journalist to meet Edward Snowden

Journalist Glenn Greenwald is usually credited as the reporter who first exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance of private citizens in The Guardian newspaper. But it was Laura Poitras who got Greenwald on board. Before that, she was the only person in the world in contact with - who Poitras knew only as ‘Citizen Four.’

Poitras says :
“It was really very scary for a number of months. I was very aware that the risks were really high and that something bad could happen. I had this kind of responsibility… in terms of source protection, communication, security and all those things, I really had to be super careful.”
Thankfully, Poitras was successful in protecting her source. And in 2013, she played a major part in reporting on the NSA’s secret surveillance programs that stunned the world. She won a 2013 George Polk Award in Journalism for National Security Reporting.

Citizenfour wins Poitras an Oscar

Despite her contribution to the Snowden reports, Poitras was still primarily a film director. So it was natural that her most important work on the NSA leaks was the 2014 documentary Citizenfour.

Citizenfour tells the story of how Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA surveillance. It begins with the first in-person meeting between Poitras, Greenwald and Edward Snowden at the Mira Hong Kong hotel. Snowden’s identity is then made public at his own request, and he flees to Russia after becoming a target of the US government. The film won the 2015 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Merging film and journalism at The Intercept

After the success of Citizenfour and her NSA journalism, Laura Poitras helped found news website The Intercept. The site is “dedicated to producing fearless, adversarial journalism.” Poitras’s co-founders were and investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill.

Poitras’s main contribution to The Intercept is Field of Vision , a “visual journalism film unit” that “pairs filmmakers with developing and ongoing stories around the globe.” It has covered the Greek economic crisis, poverty in Rio and further NSA revelations.

Continuing the fight on film

At the end of Citizenfour, Poitras refuses to return to the USA for fear of harassment or prosecution by the state. She has since moved to Berlin, Germany, where fellow NSA leak journalist also lives.

Thankfully, that doesn’t mean she’s given up the fight against mass surveillance. She’s still working on fearless journalism at The Intercept. She also released short documentary The Surrender in 2015.

Without Poitras’s work, we might still be in the dark about how governments spy on our internet usage. What will she reveal next? Whatever it is, it’s sure to ruffle a few feathers.

Featured image: “Poitras at PopTech 2010 in Camden, Maine” by Kris Krüg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.