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What it’s like to turn the camera on Snowden and Assange

July 20, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Who people tell you they are is often different from how they act, says award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, whose latest film, "Risk," looks at WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. By observing subjects like Edward Snowden make decisions in real time, she gets to experience the immediate drama of her story and change her opinion. Poitras gives her Brief but Spectacular take on making documentaries.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Her latest film is “Risk,” which looks at WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

LAURA POITRAS, Documentary Filmmaker: It’s a bit surprising that I do documentaries, because I consider myself to be a really shy person.

And there’s something about the documentary form that I guess it sort of — it kind of gives you an invitation, maybe, to go places you wouldn’t go otherwise or to take risks you wouldn’t take otherwise.

My filmmaking is — kind of comes in a tradition of observational cinema or cinema verite. Legendary founders of it is D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman. They capture human stories. They capture drama, and they capture history as it unfolds.

When you talk to people and who they tell you who they are is oftentimes different than their actions. And so I’m interested in people’s actions and choices.

So, for instance, sitting in a hotel room with Edward Snowden, as he’s making this monumental decision to leak this information, is an example of the type of cinema that I’m interested in doing.

The last two films I have done, “Citizenfour” and “Risk,” I became a participant. There were things that were happening that were happening because of work that I was doing, reporting on the NSA.

I mean, if you expose the deepest levels of intelligence agencies, they do tend to pay attention to what you’re doing. I was placed on a government terrorist watch list in 2006, and was detained at the U.S. border for — probably 50 times, interrogated. I have had computers confiscated. I have had notebooks photocopied.

They have subpoenaed my records. They would send FBI agents to my film screenings to see what I said in Q&As.

MAN: There’s a filmmaker named Laura Poitras. Laura Poitras is known through the defense community as a documentary filmmaker who is anti-U.S.

LAURA POITRAS: I became really interested in WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in 2010, like a lot of people, first when they published the video of Collateral Murder, the Apache helicopter footage that showed killings of Iraqis, by U.S. military.

And having made a film about the war in Iraq, I knew that this was the kind of thing that was happening every day there. I reached out to WikiLeaks and Assange during that time and then started filming in 2011.

And I was interested in how they were changing journalism. I had somewhat of a falling out with him over the film, where he wanted me not to use scenes in the film.

One of the scenes that Julian wanted removed from the film is the scene where his lawyers are giving him advice about how to speak publicly of — around these allegations of sexual assault.

JULIAN ASSANGE, Founder, WikiLeaks: It’s just a thoroughly tawdry, radical, feminist, political positioning thing. It’s some stereotype.

LAURA POITRAS: I still have enormous respect for, like, the project of WikiLeaks and its importance, because I think they have done extraordinary publishing.

I’m always interested in access. Like — you know, like, I would love to have access to Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump, or James Comey.

But I think those are going to be pretty tough to get access to that. But, yes, I’m really looking forward to like the really good documentary that’s capturing what’s happening right now in our politics.

I hope it’s being documented by someone.

My name is Laura Poitras, and this is my brief take on documentary filmmaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes at pbs.org/newshour/brief.

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