The Sleepless Nights of Laura Poitras: The Snowden Collaborator and Award Winner on Her Return to New York


Laura Poitras is famously private. She’s been called shy; she’s known to keep a low profile. Rolling Stone went so far as to deem Edward Snowden’s chosen collaborator “intensely paranoid,” although that may have had something to do with the fact that she declined the magazine’s interview request.

But anyone who has had the entire U.S. government’s security apparatus breathing down her neck probably deserves a little slack. Besides, somehow, amid all the chaos surrounding her, Poitras has won what has to be the triple crown of intellectual and artistic prizes: a Pulitzer, an Oscar, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Now, in a new book and with her interactive installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she’s both doubling down on her challenge to the intelligence-gathering NSA machine she and Snowden exposed and inviting people for a glimpse at who she really is. Despite that reclusive reputation, Poitras is offering up a very personal rendering of her experience over the past ten years — from injustices she’s exposed on film to parts of her journal — at the center of that machine.

Poitras was well-known before Snowden. She was already an accomplished filmmaker, having made an early mark with Flag Wars (2003), which examined a gentrifying working-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. Her next project took her to Baghdad to document life in Iraq; the result, My Country, My Country (2006), received an Academy Award nomination. Poitras followed that with 2010’s The Oath, another installment in what had become a post—9-11 series. She was working on a third film under that heading when she was contacted by Snowden. The result of their collaboration, Citizenfour, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last year.

The new installation, dubbed “Astro Noise,” opened a few weeks ago at the Whitney, where it will run through May. Jay Sanders, a curator who had worked with Poitras at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, had first contacted her about an exhibition back when she was experiencing what she calls “Kafkaesque harassment” at U.S. and foreign borders, being frequently detained and questioned. The multimedia project corresponds with the release last week of Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance.

The Whitney show is designed to give visitors a sense of the world lately inhabited by Poitras, who moved to Berlin to finish Citizenfour and has only recently come home to New York. It’s an immersive experience, a journey through worlds under surveillance. You lie on an elevated bed, transported to Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and back to the States. But you can’t sleep — drones lurk overhead; you’re waiting for them to strike. There are slits in a wall through which you can peer in at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, where you’ll see children ask why they’re being held. You will sense you are being watched, but you won’t find out for sure until after the fact — much like Poitras after being placed on a secret watch list.

‘I knew I was on a watch list just based on the number of times I’d been stopped’

There are prominent displays of documents, heavily redacted, from the U.S. government’s surveillance of Poitras. These were obtained through a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They reveal why Poitras was stopped some fifty times at the border, searched and questioned and sometimes held for hours, between 2006 and 2012.

“She discovered it had something to do with her presence in Baghdad during an insurgent assault on American troops,” her attorney and EFF senior counsel David Sobel told the Voice. “She was suspected of having prior knowledge of it, almost to the point that the allegation from the military was that she orchestrated it in order to get footage for her documentary.”

This was, of course, false, and Sobel says that if she had been presented with this allegation, it could have been cleared up at the time. “It’s a good case of demonstrating the importance of transparency and allowing people to understand what information the government has,” he explains. “If it’s a secret system where people can’t give their version of events, you’re creating a very dangerous situation in terms of civil liberties. That’s the context in which you should look at this piece of the exhibit.”

Visitors to Poitras’s show seem to come away with a sense of both anxiety and violation. “It was beautiful, insightful, and unsettling all at once,” says Jake Schneider, an art history student at Columbia. “I’m gazing at pretty stars in a night sky where drones fly — she put me where peace is disrupted.”

Schneider’s friend, Lauren Liedel, a performance studies student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, was here for a repeat viewing. “Even the second time around, I still feel a sense of anxiety walking through these spaces,” she says. “There’s an engagement of the viewer. You’re an active participant in the act of being under surveillance.”

Kevin Ryan, program director for the New York Foundation, came to the exhibition with his colleagues. “There’s isolation, sadness, paranoia about societal transformation,” he says. “When you see it laid out here the way she’s done it, you really get a sense of how huge the fight is for freedom and privacy.”

The Voice sat down to speak with Poitras at the Whitney, one of the first interviews she’s given about her new book.

VV: “Astro Noise” is the title of the show and the book. I understand this comes from the encrypted file from Snowden and also refers to the universe’s oldest observable light. But the subtitle, “A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance” — I’d like to know more about that. What were you aiming to do with this book?

LP: The book was a collaboration with all the authors and with Jay Sanders, the curator. But it was also a collaboration with the book designers, and particularly Joseph Logan. I told him I want this to be practical, not a book that you have on your coffee table but you never open. You buy them and they’re objects, but they have no practicality to them. We started talking about whether it’s a handbook, a manual. I really liked the idea of a survival guide. Joseph did all this amazing research and went to the Strand and started getting all these books, like How to Survive in the Woods. All of those kinds of books have a certain feel and style. This line that you see running at the top of the pages — that’s something you’d see in guidebooks. We wanted something that you could hold in your hand and that was approachable. It’s also somewhat metaphorical. You won’t find everything you need to know to survive, but you’ll learn a few things.

I’ve noticed there’s been a personal pivot in your work — you’re revealing yourself in a way you hadn’t before. You write in the book, in your journals, that you were under a lot of pressure. Anxiety. Difficulties sleeping. Has that anxiety eased?

My sleep is still bad. It’s been bad ever since I went to Iraq. I think it’s just a feeling of always having to be on alert. But in terms of the journal and publishing it, it came about in the process of doing the book. It actually relates to Lakhdar Boumediene, the former Guantanamo prisoner. His case (Boumediene v. Bush) is the Supreme Court victory that upheld habeas rights. He’s a person I had met soon after he was released from Guantanamo, and he’s always haunted me. I had asked Boumediene to write about how he survived the experience of being on a hunger strike and being force-fed for two years and four months, which is so hard to imagine. How do you withstand that, how do you mentally deal with that? I had asked him to do something so profoundly personal. I rediscovered my journal from Berlin and started transcribing a few things and realized it provided a document of a different kind of survival. Very different than Lakhdar Boumediene’s, but it was a window into this period of uncertainty when I was contacted by this stranger [Snowden], which was obviously something that had a lot of risk around it. So I felt that if I was asking other people in the book to be vulnerable, I had a bit of an obligation. It’s more personal than my work typically gets.

The book is very much tied to the installation, but it also stands on its own. What was your vision when assembling it?

I wasn’t interested in the museum publishing a book that was full of theory about my work. I definitely wanted to steer away from that. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to work with people I want to work with, and to have the book as an extension to the exhibition, as its own art piece. I was also very interested in making sure it was grounded in political realities. I wanted to work with topics that are not just theoretical, and I wanted to commission work for it. One of the most important commissions is the essay by Boumediene. He had endured something that I thought was really hard to imagine, and I always felt that I wanted to reach out to him again, and the book gave me the opportunity to do that.

The sketch in the book: Is that Boumediene’s drawing of a prisoner being force-fed?

No, that’s a sketch by another prisoner, of a confinement chair, a force-feeding chair. That was one commission that was really important as a political gesture, to say I want to use the resources that are going into making this book to commission something by a former Guantanamo prisoner. Also, in the exhibition, we’re including some videotape from people whose families were targets of drone strikes, and we’re giving them a licensing fee. We wanted to include the work but do it in a way where the people are credited for their work. I also wanted to have a tension between fiction and nonfiction. Cory Doctorow — I love his essays so much — I approached him and asked if he’d be interested in writing something if I gave him some Snowden archive [material] to look at, and he jumped on that chance. He’d already received a commission to do Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, so immediately he said, “This might seem like a crazy idea, but how about I do a story that breaks news and I use Snowden documents, but I tell it as a Sherlock Holmes story?” I was really excited about that and what that meant in terms of approaching the archive material differently and looking at the ways in which there are things that have happened in the war on terror that are more terrifying than you can imagine, that feel so Kafkaesque, but that are true, and to blur those lines between fact and fiction.

The structure of the exhibit seems to have a kind of retrospective quality, in terms of passage of time. It’s like you’re taking us on a tour from when the towers fell to the present. Was that something you planned?

I definitely had that in mind. I was interested in working with space in a way that has a narrative unfolding and where there’s a narrative journey. I wanted the viewer to have a sense of beginning, middle, and end going through it, and to connect to their history within the larger history. We all have a history tied to these events. I very much wanted it to be a work with a narrative structure but to use space as one of the driving forces in that.

Do you feel enough time has passed now to have perspective?

I don’t really ask that question as an artist or as a filmmaker — I pursue what I’m interested in, and the timing is always going to change. I’m not going to change the type of work I want to do because of those reasons. But it is true that I have been documenting this history, so I have a lot of material. I think the fact that I have so much to draw from influences the show and why I want to explore this history and broaden people’s understanding of it in a visceral way.

What do you think the connection is between journalism and art? Has it been kind of a way for you to move us to be more reflective?

I think of filmmaking as art, so I don’t separate journalism from art. I also feel it’s visual journalism, storytelling and narrative. So it’s not like I’ve made a radical shift in the type of work I’m doing, but there are different things that are possible with installation work that are not possible with long-form film, and that’s really exciting for me. Things like working with space, it’s more social — people are together in a different way in an exhibition environment than they are going to the movies. Basically, it allowed me new forms to express myself and to try and communicate to audiences about these things I really care deeply about. It opened up another avenue or thread or channel to explore a way of being able to use space, and a kind of physicality, being able to move bodies within a space.

Or have them lie down, then see their thermal image revealed on screen when they turn a corner.

Yeah, I was really interested in making people feel vulnerable. Earlier today, Sy Hersh was speaking to a group of journalists I work with and he talked about thermal imaging and assassination and drone warfare, and he said there’s a word that people use to describe how people appear on thermal imaging who are being targeted for killing. There will be a target, and when the missile is detonated, the people who run out of a building, because of the thermal they look bright, they’re called fireflies. Their heat becomes this sort of moving target. It’s really terrifying. That bed-down location piece, I do want it to be something beautiful to experience. The night sky in these parts of the world and the architecture are beautiful. Particularly in Sanaa [Yemen], buildings in the Old City. I lived there for many months working on a film, so I know that neighborhood and I know that architecture. Wanting to bring that beauty and having people contemplate that while also contemplating the frightening reality that the U.S. is flying drones over these countries and assassinating people.

Regarding what your attorney David Sobel told me, if you had been presented with the information about the government suspecting you of aiding people who attacked U.S. troops, would you have tried to clear up that misinformation?

If they had asked me, as opposed to being stopped at the airport? I never got a knock on the door or was asked. But I wasn’t going to talk about any of my journalism. I was not about to say who I filmed or why I filmed or what I was doing, so there wouldn’t be much of a conversation to be had there. On the other hand, yeah, they had a crazy theory which they never seemed to try to verify. One thing that I know from reading the FBI documents that is not really in the show is that there are these testimonies from soldiers saying they saw me on the roof with this doctor who they didn’t like. Actually the doctor wasn’t even there that day. In the edited version of My Country, My Country, I show an image of him. There’s a cutaway of him — but he actually wasn’t there that day. Basically, they’re basing their terrorism investigation on the way my movie was edited. It makes the story even more bizarre. I knew I was on a watch list just based on the number of times I’d been stopped. The big surprise was the fact that there was a grand jury investigation and that my records were subpoenaed. That was all news to me. Based on literally no evidence. Based on the fact that I was seen in a conflict zone with a camera. The truth is at that time, when I was in Iraq, all of the U.S. media were terrified to travel and were not leaving their bureaus often, and if they were, it was with large security details. I wasn’t traveling like that. The Green Zone was the compound they created for themselves and the Red Zone was the rest of Iraq — it was that the entire country was dangerous. And I was filming in the Red Zone. That, in and of itself, was suspicious to them and their worldview.

It’s been some three years since you first met Edward Snowden. How do you feel about the state of the public conversation his revelations have spurred?

All the press about what is happening with Apple and the FBI is pretty interesting, and I think that is a debate that probably wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for the actions of Snowden. Apple is taking a stand that I do support. I’m not a technologist, but I know a lot of technologists and they all say this idea of creating backdoors is a very dangerous precedent and if you provide those kinds of exceptions it will be exploited by other people and other actors — that you need secure communications and secure internet, and that we’re all vulnerable if that security is not maintained. I think it’s a really dangerous precedent for law enforcement to ask companies to become extensions of law enforcement. I do think this kind of debate in public wouldn’t have happened without Snowden taking the risk that he took. Fear and the question of security have been used to erode all kinds of rights, and I think we should resist that.

You opened your New York Times op-doc “Death of a Prisoner” with President Obama announcing his plans to close Guantanamo in 2009. Now it’s 2016 and it’s still open  what are your thoughts?

It was his first day in office when he said he was going to sign the executive order to close Guantanamo. And now here we are almost eight years later. Guantanamo is a crime scene and they should have shut it down years ago, and Obama could have and should have, and he chose not to use his political capital to make that happen. I think he knows it’s a horrible legacy to have kept that prison open, and if it’s still open after he leaves, I think he’ll understand that. I think one of the frightening things about Obama has been the institutionalization and normalization of the extremely radical practices and policies that emerged under Bush and have continued with Obama, like the drone assassination program. You have things that seem so extreme, so radical, and so outside of any constitutional bounds become normal, and that’s really scary.

So you’re living in New York full time now after being in Berlin. How does it feel to be back in the city?

It was definitely tense when I left. I was away for two years. I left in the fall of 2012 for Berlin, then started coming back and forth after finishing Citizenfour in 2014. I knew when I came back that the next big project I was doing was the Whitney. It’s been pretty intense — it’s been full-on work both with the exhibition and doing the book, and I’m also working on a couple of other projects. I haven’t been able to see a lot of friends since I’ve been back, because I’ve been under sort of heavy deadlines. But how does it feel? It’s nice to be back.