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Documentarian Laura Poitras discusses Snowden, earning trust

By Andrea Gonzales

Heroic, self-sacrificing with no personal gain or benefit. These are the words Academy Award-winning documentarian Laura Poitras used to describe the actions of Edward Snowden.

Most people know Poitras from her recent film “Citizen Four,” which documented Snowden’s decision to leak classified NSA documents, revealing the agency’s mass surveillance program. Her other films include “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath.”

Poitras said she’s interested in human beings’ actions rather than their words. She originally thought making a documentary would involve a lot of people, but after giving it a try she found that wasn’t the case. She described herself as a solitary person and worker.

Poitras recalled being in New York on 9/11. A friend from Germany called her to make sure she was safe. That’s when Poitras went outside and discovered what had happened before the second plane hit.

She went to Iraq for 8 months to film “My Country, My Country,” which follows the first post-9/11 election. It was a dangerous time to be in the country, so Poitras worked alone and went without a translator. Because she didn’t know what people were saying as she was filming, she’d had to be filled in once she returned home.

Poitras said she went to Iraq skeptical. While there, however, she learned what Iraqis were willing to risk for the elections. She said the United States should be learning from them and tried to convey that message in her film.

“It’s a celebration of democracy, but in a failed context,” Poitras said of “My Country, My Country.”

Soon after her first documentary was released in 2006, she found out she was on the U.S. Watch List. 

Her second film, “The Oath,” documented Osama Bin Laden’s former bodyguard-turned-taxi driver. She said she convinced Abu Jandal to let her film by first asking if she could put a camera in his cab and then, in small increments, asking for more access to his life.

Then came Edward Snowden. Poitras knew the NSA had enormous reach and that Snowden had put himself at risk contacting her. This led her to believe he was more than just a “paranoid person” and to follow her instincts in trusting him.

Poitras said if journalists don’t want their research broadcast, they should be using the web browser Tor. Journalists who are working with sensitive sources should be using encryption to communicate. An app called Signal encrypts phone calls and texts.

An audience member asked Poitras how she felt about the recent Patriot Act reform, which ended the NSA’s metadata phone collection program.

“Honestly, the debate wouldn’t have ever happened and this conversation wouldn’t exist without what [Snowden] did,” Poitras said.


Andrea Gonzales is a rising senior at the Missouri School of Journalism. She will graduate with a degree in broadcast journalism with an emphasis in reporting and anchoring. She has previously interned with Scripps Washington Bureau's investigative unit and Detroit's WXYZ-TV special projects unit.

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