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Laura Poitras and the Snowden Leak: How a Documentary Filmmaker Put a Human Face on the PRISM Scandal

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by Sam Adams
June 11, 2013 1:49 PM
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The Guardian and Washington Post's articles on the National Security Agency's top-secret PRISM program -- which no less an authority than Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg called the most important disclosure in American history -- bore the familiar bylines of reporters Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman. But those bylines were shared by an unfamiliar name, or at least one more likely to be familiar to film festival frequenters than readers of Foreign Affairs.

In the last decade, Laura Poitras has established herself as one of the sharpest and most gifted documentary filmmakers in the field, honored with awards from Sundance, True/False and Full Frame as well as a Peabody and a MacArthur "genius grant," not to mention a spot in the 2012 Whitney Biennial. She's also been granted the dubious distinction of landing on the Department of Homeland Security's watch list, routinely detained and interrogated at the U.S. border while working on her 2010 film "The Oath." (One of the film's subjects was Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden whose Supreme Court case led to the end of the Bush Administration's military tribunals.) Along with 2006's "My Country, My Country," "The Oath" formed what Poitras began to call a trilogy of films about America post-9/11.

It's now clear that the subject of that still-untitled third film is the American security state, first previewed in a 2012 New York Times "Op-Doc" about NSA whistleblower William Binney. When it's placed side to side with the video interview of Edward Snowdenthe government contractor who blew the whistle on PRISM, the two form an engrossing and deeply frightening picture of a society that has no idea how closely it's being watched.

The Snowden interview, shot in the Hong Kong hotel room where he was then taking refuge, is a shoestring affair, but even in its lightly edited static shots, Poitras' filmmaking skills are evident. She frames Snowden, who with his blotchy skin and scraggly stubble looks even younger than his 29 years, against a reflection of himself, an image that suggests the internal struggle preceding his life-changing, world-shaking decision and the fact that he will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. "My Country, My Country" and "The Oath," both filmed largely in the Middle East, are observational portraits, designed in large part to humanize people the U.S. has spent the last 12 years demonizing, but her interviews with Snowden and Binney are more confrontational, facing their subjects head-on rather than following in their footsteps.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it's mildly disappointing to see Poitras falling back on talking heads, even when what those heads have to say is of vital importance. But the release of Binney and Snowden's interviews as stand-alone pieces indicates a savvy distinction on her part between breaking news and long-form documentary. It's a hard truth of documentary, one which too many issue-oriented filmmakers are slow to learn, that conveying large chunks of information -- in the sense of facts and figures -- is not something for which the medium is especially well-suited. Why would you watch a documentary based on Jeremy Scahill's "Dirty Wars" when you could simply read the book? ("I've only got a couple hours" is a practical reason, but not a very good one.) 

What documentary can convey is the human cost that accompanies those facts, the toll it takes each time Scahill shoves a pushpin into his office wall, adding one more piece to an endless puzzle. Since the revelation of Snowden's identity, the debate over his decision has predictably turned personal: Who is he? What does he want? Have you seen his girlfriend's blog? But what emerges from Poitras' interview is a personal truth of a different sort. You see a man facing the potential wrath of the world's most powerful nation, with full knowledge of its capabilities. He may have come forward on principle, but he’s also made his name and face public because he knows there's no way to hide from the people he once worked for: better everyone know him than just the NSA. By putting himself on video, he's made himself human rather than abstract, and in so doing shined light on a government agency that thrives in the shadows.

Watch Laura Poitras' "The Oath" on Netflix. "My Country, My Country" is available for digital rental.


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