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Documentary Film Maker Laura Poitras Comes Under Fire!

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06/15/2013 7:23 pm
Documentary Film Maker Laura Poitras Comes Under Fire!

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Dani Strehle


Staff Writer

Documentary film maker, Laura Poitras, has earned Emmy and Oscar nominations due to her immense talent, and her willingness to push boundaries. She has also been awarded Sundance Film Festival recognition and had a television showcase on public television.

Recently, Poitras found herself under the microscope regarding her involvement as the first point of contact of disclosures of U.S. surveillance programs.

Poitras is allegedly infamous for her devotion and tenacity when it comes to her work. Those that know her, including her backers- Poitras was the recipient of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation- are in no way surprised that she has unearthed such a significant story. However, the fact that she has acquired a confidential source and two major newspapers confirming the same exclusive story is unheard of.

"She’s incredibly driven and determined and she doesn’t let obstacles get in the way," quoted Simon Kilmurry, executive producer of PBS’ documentary series POV, where Poitras’ films aired.  "She really works at the intersection of journalist and artist and storyteller."

Poitras, 49, claims that she was the first media contact on the breaking story and that her informant was Edward Snowden; she also had duel bylines on articles for The Washington Post and The Guardian of London. These articles leaked facts about massive and confidential Internet and phone surveillance. She was also behind a riveting video interview, where the former contractor for the spy agency being held responsible for the leaked information stoically justified his actions.

This week, Poitras informed Salon.com that she is in possession of even more footage of Snowden that she intends to use in her impending documentary; footage that apparently shows Snowden in Hong Kong, where he has taken asylum. Poitras has entertained the thought of making a documentary that zeroes in on state-wide surveillance and whistleblowers, which would mark the final piece of her trilogy regarding the aftershock of September 11th.

Apparently, Snowden was intrigued by Poitras due to her involvement in government prying and the resulting personal fallout, such as what she referred to as constant United States “border harassment.” .

"You probably don’t like how this system works. I think you can tell the story," Snowden told her. Their primary interaction had clandestine nuances, like his insistence that they speak in encrypted type, for example.

His first contact came in the form of an anonymous email in January. Poitras got in contact with her collaborater, Barton Gellman from the Post, in order to get his professional valuation of Snowden’s credibility.

Gellman credits Poitras for bringing him onto the project, stating that it “began with Laura,” who he befriended when they were both students at New York University. This also resulted in his eventual tête-à-têtes with Snowden. Gellman also considers Poitras a good friend.

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Poitras was reluctant with the details when speaking with Salon regarding how the story came to fruition.  "I feel a certain need to be cautious about not wanting to do the work for the government." She also stated that she isn’t quite prepared to weave the "whole story now. … I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller."

Kirsten Johnson, a cinematographer and Poitras’ coworker, has remained in contact with her.

"She is doing well, and I think she feels the responsibility of the importance of this historical event," Johnson answered on Thursday.

With these new admissions about the National Security Agency, Poitras has been made the front-woman of a rapidly growing trend, dubbed “history-in-a-hurry,” a type of reporting documentarians participate in while they are busy cultivating more in-depth accounting via film.

"Laura has expanded her capacity to explore the story even as she is making the story," quipped Cara Mertes, a longtime devotee and producer, as well as the director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program. “She’s one of the most remarkable filmmakers working today."

Robert Greenwald (no relation to Glenn Greenwald) , a filmmaker and activist, notes that many documentarians have shifted the national dialogue.

Other documentarians have changed the national conversation, said veteran filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald (no relation to Glenn Greenwald). However, the sensational coup Poitras pulled off combining an eclectic mix of social media, video, and traditional news outlets “is quite extraordinary and my hat goes off to her and the newspaper reporters,” complemented Greenwald, whose most recent work is the documentary “War on Whistleblowers.”

"We used to wait five, 10, 15 years before we did a documentary," he remembered. "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."

This new technique is not universally admired, however.

Professor emeritus of press and public policy at Harvard University, Marvin Kalb, believes that there is so instance for a condition where a documentarian really pushed a story in this fashion. His instincts tell him that “she’s blown it” and she should have kept her lips sealed and revealed this information only within her documentary, “and in one glorious moment have all of it,” advised Kalb, a seasoned reported for both CBS and NBC News.

It may not all rest on Poitras’ shoulders, however: Snowden very well may have been pushing the choice to release the information in a swift manner.

Poitras has never been afraid of a challenge or controversial topics. She created her Peabody-winning portrayal of urban refurbishment called “Flag Wars in 2002;” and “My Country, My Country” was nominated for an Oscar in 2006 and dissected the lives of Iraqi’s under U.S. control, and “The Oath,” the 2010 documentary exploring the effect anti-terrorism efforts, followed two men of Middle Eastern decent, including a former body-guard of the now deceased Osama Bin Laden.

“Country” and “Flag Wars” chronicles post-9/11 life, a topic that has earned her acclaim in her industry, but hasn’t catapulted her to the fame and glory awarded to Morgan Spurlock after his mega-hit, Super Size Me, which follows him while he eats nothing but McDonald’s for thirty days.

Poitras informed the POV websitethat she intended to make an “on-the-ground record that can help us understand 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.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation, a foundation in which Poitras is a member of the board of directors, describes itself as a champion for journalism, “focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.”

Daniel Ellsberg, best known for his involvement in the 1970 Pentagon Papers, as well as Greenwald of the Guardian, are members of the board with Poitrus, and also interviewed Snowden.

Greenwald informed Salon that Poitras is “easily on of the bravest and most brilliant people I’ve ever met.”

Poitras and Greenwald have common interests and fears. They share a mutual distrust of unsolicited government interference. In fact, Greenwald has authored three books arguing that the government continually infringes upon human rights citing that it’s a matter of national security.

One reason Poitras gave for joining the foundation was 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,” foundation executive director and co-founder, Trevor Timm, speculated.

It has been over six years since Poitras began her 9/11 specific work; a project that has often called her to the Middle East. Poitras claims that she has been unceasingly harassed by U.S. officials, both abroad, and on U.S. soil. 

"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 stated in an April 2012 television appearance.

Poitras stated that, during an instance where she was questioned by a Homeland Security official in London around the same time “I told them I was a journalist and my work was protected and I wasn’t going to discuss it,” she said.

Border Protection and U.S. Customs gave a statement saying that they are prohibited from discussing specifics about any cases due to stringent privacy laws. They also state that U.S. citizens returning to the country from foreign nations cannot be denied entry in the States, and shall only be detained if there is outstanding arrest warrant. Though, loopholes leave room for further inspection “for a variety of reasons to include identity verification, intent of travel, and confirmation of admissibility,” informed the agency.

"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," Johnson stated. Poitras considered this to be a profound breach.

Poitras appears to be out of contact at the moment, as an email sent to her produced an auto-reply from her inbox: “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 mused. "She doesn’t like to make the story about her. I can understand why she’s been hesitant to talk."

Before all the scrutiny began, Poitras’ online interviews portray her as laid-back and diligent; a fact that may be easy to forget given her

In online interviews given before the surveillance story broke, Poitras comes across as low-key and cautious despite her inclination to herself in harm’s way for her work. Poitras has been quoted as saying that the idea of meeting one of Bin Laden’s former bodyguards in Yemen came with a side of “’danger’ flashing signs.”

Kilmurry believes, however, that Poitras, 49, isn’t driven by an agenda.

"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," Kilmurry stated. "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 collaborating with Poitras on her final 9/11 film that focuses mainly on surveillance and whistleblowers, said he is reluctant to predict a completion date.

"There’s no timeline. That’s what’s remarkable about her. She really does let the story lead her," Johnson stated.

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