When former CIA employee Edward Snowden decided to leak classified information about the government’s top-secret surveillance programs, the first person he contacted was documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.
Poitras, who received a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, has a lot of experience with controversial political topics. Her 2006 documentary, My Country, My Country, about life in Iraq under U.S. occupation, was nominated for an Academy Award, and she extensively interviewed one of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguards for her 2010 film The Oath. The latter film examines the impact of anti-terrorism actions on individuals in the Middle East.
The filmmaker has since turned her focus to the U.S. government’s surveillance of its own citizens. She plans to follow up My Country, My Country and The Oath with a new documentary about covert spying on the American public and attacks on whistleblowers, making all three films part of a trilogy focused on the effects of the War on Terror.
It’s not a huge surprise, therefore, that Edward Snowden turned to Laura Poitras with what is perhaps the biggest whistleblowing story of the century. This is particularly true considering the risk of sharing a story with so many political implications to a major media outlet (i.e. the New York Times’ decision to wait a year before publishing its 2005 story about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program). Poitras is certainly not waiting to capitalize on Snowden’s leak. She shared bylines with The Guardian‘s Gleen Greenwald and The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman when the publications broke the story; furthermore, she released a video interview with Snowden in which he defends his decision to reveal this classified information.
Poitras recently told Salon.com that she has even more video footage of Snowden, taken from the former spy agency contractor’s refuge in Hong Kong. She plans to use it in her upcoming documentary, the aforementioned final chapter in her War on Terror trilogy. The filmmaker has herself been subject to government surveillance and even border-crossing challenges as a result of her journalistic work, so she has a personal stake in exposing the extent of the snooping. Given the urgency of this political situation, which is unfolding as we speak, this may be one of the most quickly produced documentaries in history.
So, will Laura Poitras get another Oscar nomination for her upcoming documentary? Time (and maybe not even all that much of it) will tell.