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'Citizenfour' Charts The Early Days Of Snowden's NSA Revelations


Revelations about a massive system of global surveillance all started with an email.


LAURA POITRAS: (Reading) Laura, at this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk.

BLOCK: That email from Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency Contractors sent in early 2013 and read by the recipient, documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras.


POITRAS: (Reading) For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.

BLOCK: This is how Poitras opens her new documentary.


POITRAS: (Reading) Thank you and be careful, Citizenfour.

BLOCK: That's the handle Edward Snowden used in his first anonymous e-mails to Laura Poitras. And "Citizenfour" is the title of her new documentary about Snowden and the surveillance programs he divulged. It's her third in a trilogy of post-9/11 films. Laura Poitras, welcome back to the program.

POITRAS: Thanks, it's great to be here again.

BLOCK: And what is the sensation that you want the viewer to get as they listen to those words in your voice?

POITRAS: We decided - or I really wanted to begin the film with these emails that I received from an anonymous person over the course of five months, before I actually met him in person in Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald. And during that time, I mean, it was - I was pulled into a situation that I didn't quite know where it was going to lead me. I didn't know who was on the other end of these emails and I wanted to sort of set the film up that way.

BLOCK: Well, the bulk of your movie takes place in the hotel in Hong Kong, in the room after you first meet Edward Snowden. It was June of last year. You filmed him over eight days as he was being interviewed by Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. And we see Edward Snowden sitting on a rumpled bed, he's unshaven, he's in a t-shirt. It's really static in a lot of ways. You're in this tiny, very small hotel room and it feels pretty claustrophobic. Did you worry about that effect on viewers, of how hemmed in that would feel?

POITRAS: Well, I mean, as a documentary filmmaker, I mean, what I try to do is film things as they unfold in real time before me. And that's the situation that we met him, so I was, I mean, as a filmmaker, I think that it actually offered an opportunity because it created a sort of confined space. And what you see in the film is that what unfolds in this very claustrophobic space has reverberations that are felt globally. And, you know, we leave that space and, you know, at the end of these - of this encounter and see its impact.

BLOCK: Apart from the interview moments in that hotel room, were there small moments that you were really happy to capture on film, things that you notice as a filmmaker that maybe Glenn Greenwald as a reporter wouldn't have noticed?

POITRAS: I mean, let me just kind of step back and try to give you a sense of what we were feeling in the moment, which was a lot of risk and fear of that - and the danger that we felt was present and the risk that Snowden was taking and then the risk that we as journalists were taking. And so my headspace was more just in terms of trying to stay focused and film what happened there. And, you know, figure out ways into - some logistics in terms of making sure that my footage stayed secure. I kept backups in certain places, et. cetera.

BLOCK: In your movie we see the buildup of Edward Snowden's decision to go public, to have his name revealed as the leaker. And I want to play a bit of a scene from the movie where he's explaining his thinking on that.


EDWARD SNOWDEN: This is not a question of somebody skulking around in the shadows. These are public issues. These are not my issues, you know, these are everybody's issues. And I'm not afraid of you, you know, you're not going to bully me into silence like you've done to everybody else. And if nobody else is going to do it, I will.

BLOCK: And when he says I'm not afraid of you, he's talking about the U.S. government there. What was going through your mind as you heard him say that?

POITRAS: I mean, lots of things - I mean, you know, we're in this hotel room. We knew that there was a clock ticking, that his absence had been noted. The government and NSA were knocking on his door in Hawaii and, you know, we were reporting. And his desire was that we do as much reporting as we could before he entered the story. But we knew it was going to happen inevitably. And since he was - wanted to come forward and claim responsibility as you just heard, we were trying to decide when to do that. But, you know, from my perspective, you know, being in the room, I very much felt that I was witnessing somebody who was basically kind of crossing over into the line of, like, I don't know. I've made choices in my life and I don't know what the repercussions will be but I accept them.

BLOCK: I'm talking with Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker, about her new movie "Citizenfour." How has working on this film changed you? Are there things that you used to do, maybe used to electronically that you just don't do now in the course of normal daily life?

POITRAS: Yeah, how long - how much time you have to talk about that?

BLOCK: (Laughter).

POITRAS: I mean, yeah, there's a long list. I mean, I was already being careful in terms of using encryption before I was contacted by Snowden. But now it's kind of at a different level. I mean, I have different computers that I use for different things, I figured my cell phone was something I would just sort of leave behind. I didn't need it; I'm using a landline because, you know, I know that it can be used to identify my location, those kinds of things. So yeah, I take lots of precautions, but, you know, I think given the reporting that I'm doing, that seems pretty common sense.

BLOCK: But apart from the reporting, just in terms of how you live your life, are there places where you go now and you feel completely private, or do you assume that there's some sort of something keeping tabs on you all the time?

POITRAS: I mean, what would you think? I mean, you know, given the fact that, you know, the information that's known that I have? I, you know, it's a question - I don't think anyone's gone into my home and rigged it, but you don't know. I mean, you don't know if there are people who are watching who you spend time with, you know, I don't know.

BLOCK: You know very well that Edward Snowden has become a deeply polarizing figure. Supporters consider him a whistleblowing hero, his detractors call him a traitor. How do you see him in the end, or do you reject that dialectic?

POITRAS: I mean, in general, I try to make work that's complicated and that, you know, lets people reach their own conclusions. I mean, I think from, you know, my personal experience, I can say that, you know, he made the choices he did because he was profoundly disturbed by the dangers of NSA surveillance and he felt the public had a right to know. And that I know to be - that's what motivated him. In terms of how others, you know, want to agree or disagree, I'll let them do that. I mean, I think the film does give you a sense of why he did what he did. And I think it certainly debunks some myths, you know, I think it's clear after seeing the film that he's not an agent for any other country or anything like that - that he did this because he felt that these are real dangers to democracy.

BLOCK: That's Laura Poitras. Her new documentary is titled "Citizenfour." Laura, thanks very much.

POITRAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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