POV: What was it like being a female filmmaker making a film about Al Qaeda in Yemen?
Laura Poitras: I haven’t yet attended a screening where people don’t ask me about gender and about what I wore. It’s a little bit frustrating, because I feel like it has nothing to do with what the film is about, but, of course, everyone’s curious.
Gender plays a role in working in the Middle East. It allows you to move between two worlds, because there is a gender divide and if I’d gone there as a Western male, I wouldn’t have been able to get the kind of intimate access people that I did get as a woman in Yemen and in Iraq for my previous film, My Country, My Country.
Women in the back of a truck in Yemen. Photo by Khalid Al Mahdi.
So being a woman helped, but it also helped that I had made a film in Iraq, and people had respect for me as a journalist. I work alone in the field, and I am able to be patient and get intimate moments on camera.
POV: How do you describe yourself to those you are filming? Do you tell them that you are a journalist?
Poitras: In those cultures, they really think I’m sort of an alien. They think, what is this woman doing alone in these countries, away from home? The subjects perceive me as a peculiar person who’s dropped in from outer space, and they try to assess whether or not I’m friendly.
In terms of how I describe myself, I say that I am an artist unless I’m being held at an airport. In those situations, I’m definitely a journalist claiming my First Amendment rights.
POV: The film is absolutely beautiful. Can you talk about your stylistic approach to making the film?
Poitras: I have an amazing group of creative collaborators on this film. The Guantánamo piece was shot by Kirsten Johnson, who’s just an extraordinary director of photography. We talked about having two different palettes and cutting back and forth between them, so that Yemen, where I was shooting, would be more kinetic, more hand-held, and Guantánamo, where she would be shooting, would be more austere and somewhat off-balance. We wanted to have a sense of distance from Guantánamo, because it is a place you really can’t penetrate. We wanted to approach it almost as if it were a crime scene, so that you get the sense that something happened there, but you don’t know what.
The music was composed by Osvaldo Golijov, who is probably one of the most extraordinary artists working today. I was very fortunate that he agreed to work on the film and brought a stellar group of musicians to work on it with him. The film was edited by Jonathan Oppenheim, who’s just a joy to work with and definitely the right person to work on a film that deals with psychological nuance.
POV: Do you speak Arabic? How did you approach filming Abu Jandal?
Poitras: I learned a little bit of Arabic. So I can use it to be polite and to get from point A to point B. But there was always a lag time between when I was filming and when I got the full translation back, which was interesting. Sometimes it made people I was filming forget that I was there, because they knew that I wasn’t tracking what they were saying in the moment. So that delay was useful in some ways.
When I was interviewing Abu Jandal, I worked with a female interpreter. But when I filmed in vérité style, it was just the two of us [myself and Abu Jandal], and I could only find out later what had actually been happening in the scene.