Laura Poitras talks CITIZENFOUR in the Walter Reade Theater. Photo by Hugo Massa.

For years filmmaker Laura Poitras had been making a documentary about United States surveillance. And for many reasons, she kept very quiet about it, referencing it obliquely in some circles but never discussing it at length. Certainly not in public. Even before meeting Edward Snowden last April, Poitras, an American who grew up in suburban Massachusetts, had decided to leave the country and move to Berlin where she could work on the film more securely.

Poitras had good reason for concern about her privacy, and even her security. After making My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), the first two films in her trilogy about America after 9/11, the 50-year-old filmmaker found herself detained numerous times when returning to this country. Cameras and equipment were seized and it wasn’t until journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about her travel difficulties that her home government stopped harassing her at its borders.

“The country had moved in a direction that I thought was disturbing,” Poitras explained to Dennis Lim on Saturday afternoon on stage at the Walter Reade Theater, when asked about what why she made this trilogy of documentaries. It was her first extensive, open conversation about the movie.

While Laura Poitras didn’t originally set out to make a series of films, as she was editing My Country, My Country, she said she knew that it would be part of a larger body of work. For years, Poitras only said that the third film would be about surveillance. “I always felt that what I wanted to do with the last piece was bring it home,” Poitras told Lim this weekend.

“I think they are films that help us understand the political through the personal,” Lim praised on Saturday at the final HBO Directors Dialogue of this year’s New York Film Festival.

Their conversation followed Friday’s rapturous world premiere of CITIZENFOUR at Alice Tully Hall. It was unlike any screening seen at the New York Film Festival in decades. An extended standing ovation continued throughout the film’s credits and resumed when Poitras took the stage alongside Kent Jones for a brief conversation. The audience stood and cheered again many times during the discussion: when Glenn Greenwald joined Poitras on stage and later giving Edward Snowden’s parents and grandmother a huge ovation.

Poitras with Snowden's family at the world premiere. Photo by Godlis.

Laura Poitras was the first person to correspond with famed whistleblower Snowden last year. The former NSA employee had reached out to Greenwald but they never connected, so he eventually went to Poitras and the two began talking via encrypted e-mails. She brought Greenwald into the picture when the two flew to Hong Kong to see their source in person. Poitras picked up her camera moments after first meeting Edward Snowden face to face is his hotel room, personally shooting more than 20 hours of footage with Snowden and Greenwald last April. Her film about surveillance was suddenly heading in a whole new direction.

“It basically felt like a free fall,” Poitras said of her experiences with Snowden and Greenwald in Hong Kong. She said she was immediately aware of the historical magnitude of their meetings. Greenwald conducted, and Poitras documented, an extended interview with Snowden that she hopes to re-release in its entirety someday.

CITIZENFOUR is built around those days with Snowden in Hong Kong, but the film also includes others at risk due to their outspoken stances against American surveillance. Its title taken from an alias that Edward Snowden used during his early correspondence with Poitras, the film plays like a spy thriller during the hour of screen time devoted to the Hong Kong meetings.

“Here's someone who took a profound human risk,” Poitras told Lim during this weekend’s Dialogue. “To share that with the world is important.”

For Poitras, however, this film took her out of her comfort zone behind the camera. She was now a part of her own film in an unanticipated way. “The story needed to be told from a subjective point of view,” she noted, “I had to incorporate myself into the story.”

Poitras would narrate her film by reading from e-mail correspondence with Snowden sent before they met in person. In one message she asked Snowden why he picked her to share his payload of secret government documents. “You asked why I chose you,” he wrote to her. “I didn’t. You chose yourself.”

CITIZENFOUR, which opens on October 24 courtesy of RADiUS-TWC, also documents others (including former NSA surveillance architect William Binney and activist Jacob Appelbaum) who are challenging the American surveillance state and its broad international reach, and in doing so paints a shocking picture.

“The film is about [Edward Snowden], but not about him,” Poitras told Lim on Saturday. “It's about people who come forward and take risks.”

Edward Snowden in a scene from CITIZENFOUR.

Getting the film to the New York Film Festival on Friday was not without a bit of intrigue and caution.

Numerous festivals and film organizations were tracking the untitled documentary based on Laura Poitras’s track record and her intriguing subject matter. This summer, she agreed to show the Film Society of Lincoln Center a rough cut of her nearly finished film. She was selling the movie to a U.S. distributor and about ready to unveil it to the world. A small group of us, including the Selection Committee for the New York Film Festival, gathered downtown to watch a cut of the film (but not before the screening room was changed a few times just in case someone was tracking her movements). Producer Dirk Wilutzky warned that the unfinished film contained sensitive material and would include black boxes over parts of the final scene in the film to protect aspects of the movie that were not yet ready for public consumption.

When the lights came up nearly two hours later, the seven of us in the room were floored. Festival Director Kent Jones immediately told the group that he would invite it to screen at NYFF. We’d all just seen a gripping, exciting new film but, due to numerous sensitivities, we couldn’t talk about it with anyone. In fact, in order to allow Poitras to continue working on the film quietly in Berlin, we had to keep the movie’s inclusion in the festival under wraps until mid-September. It would screen on the final Friday of the festival and open in theaters just two weeks later to give Poitras and her team as much time as possible to finish the film.

In the office in the weeks leading up to the announcement, we referred to the film only as “C4.” It was kept out of festival schedules and documents until we could talk about it openly. On September 16, we announced the addition of the film as a world premiere in the Main Slate lineup for the upcoming New York Film Festival. Tickets for both screenings sold out within just a few hours.

Poitras recently traveled to Moscow to show the film to Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who is now living with him in Russia. While there she filmed a brief scene, shot from outside their home, as the two of them are cooking dinner together. The scene is included near the end of the movie.

Edward Snowden in a scene shot just a few weeks before the film's world premiere.

“It was one of the most profound screenings I've done,” Poitras said on Saturday.

Asked during a lengthy audience question and answer session on Saturday about the risks she took to make CITIZENFOUR, Poitras immediately deflected attention to her primary subject.

“The greatest risks were taken in this film by Snowden,” she responded quickly, before admitting that she also felt in danger herself. “We knew that we were going to be angering the most powerful people in the world and that comes with risk.”

Poitras revealed that she re-read George Orwell’s 1984 as she started to engage in the dialogue with Edward Snowden last year. “It felt like a good time to do that,” she said wryly. Meanwhile, when asked about her view of threats facing this country today, she was specific. “Executive power and secrecy are most dangerous threats,” Poitras told an audience member.

While there are certainly newsworthy revelations in the film—notably in a final scene filmed in a Russian hotel room meeting between Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras—she and her collaborators (among them editor Mathilde Bonnefoy and producer Dirk Wilutzky) were not aiming to impart headline information.

“We are all people who come from this tradition of making cinema,” Poitras told Lim. “We created a wall around it to protect it [and learned] not to become reactive. A documentary, a long-form piece does not exist to break news.”

Poitras on stage with Kent Jones after the world premiere of CITIZENFOUR. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.

With CITIZENFOUR, Poitras sought to take a broader view.

“My work follows in the tradition of cinema verité, I am very interested in being there when things are unfolding in real time,” Poitras said. “When life is unfolding it's always a series of questions and challenges of what path to take. I try to document that as it's happening, how people confront conflict and risk and the choices that they make. I am not interested in what people think about things, I am interested in how they act.”

The typically reserved Poitras will be thrust into the spotlight over the coming weeks as the film reaches wider audiences. She will be traveling with the film to numerous screenings and festivals. On Saturday, though, she was still adjusting to openly discussing her new work. 

“It's actually really strange for me to talk about things I haven't spoken about,” she explained. “It's a bit of a shock to put it into the world. I still don't quite know what the reverberations are.”