CCA Cinema Visionaries: Laura Poitras

Portrait of filmmaker and Cinema Visionaries visiting artist, Laura Poitras

In January of 2013, Laura Poitras received an email from an anonymous senior government employee. Edward Snowden, nicknamed “Citizenfour,” leaked detailed documents about secret NSA surveillance programs to Poitras and two U.S.-based journalists. “You ask why I picked you. I didn't. You did,” Snowden wrote in an early email to the filmmaker.

The films of Laura Poitras focus on issues around gender and power, gentrification, the ‘War on Terror,’ government surveillance, the treatment of whistleblowers, and unconventional publishers, such as WikiLeaks. Her role as artist, journalist, director, and subject of controversial government targeting make her a powerful addition to the CCA Cinema Visionaries lecture series for MFA film and BFA film students.

The Documentarian: Watchful & Uncompromising

Poitras and colleague Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong, where Snowden was holed up in a small hotel room, to chase down the story that would not only earn Poitras an Oscar® for Best Documentary Feature, but also a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service—awarded to The Guardian and Washington Post teams that first broke the news with a series of articles.

“I wanted to film that first encounter. It was my instinct as a filmmaker … I know the feeling of being in the editing room and saying, ‘Oh, I wish I was rolling then,’” she told journalist Amanda Lang in a 2015 interview. Poitras' immediate footage of Snowden is intense, eloquent, and often punctuated by palpable paranoia. Lang describes it best: “A portrait of the immense stress of Snowden.”

Filming the Unprecedented Story

Poitras is no stranger to high stakes and unpredictable narratives. My Country, My Country (2006), her intimate portrayal of an Iraqi family living under U.S. occupation, landed her on a government watchlist. Risking her own life to tell the story, she filmed alone over the course of eight months, often in the presence of extreme violence, blurring the lines between observation and participation.

Poitras began filming WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange in 2011. With almost unlimited access to Assange and his team over the course of six years, Risk became much more than a documentary about surveillance culture. Her camera reveals the darker side to Assange’s philosophy: egotism, sexism, and a relentless focus on self-preservation. Laura Poitras challenges us to untangle revolutionary from oppressor, participant from observer, and filmmaker from film.

For a complete list of documentaries Poitras has filmed and executive produced, please visit Praxis Films.

About CCA Cinema Visionaries

Each year, CCA's Film Program hosts a lineup of renowned filmmakers for a series of public conversations. Both MFA film and BFA film students have a chance to interact with guest filmmakers during hands-on master classes.

Past Cinema Visionaries have included Kelly Reichardt, Alex Gibney, Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, Lisa Cholodenko, Michael Moore, Barbara Hammer, John Waters, and Barry Jenkins. Made possible with the generous support of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, steadfast champions of art who call San Francisco home.