Filmmaker takes center stage in surveillance story

Saturday - 6/15/2013, 11:24am EDT

AP Television Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Laura Poitras' skill and boldness as a documentary filmmaker have gained her Oscar and Emmy nominations, Sundance Film Festival honors and a public TV showcase, even if her work fell short of making a "Super Size Me" splash.

But her role as the first point of contact for disclosures about U.S. surveillance programs has drawn the glare of attention to the independent filmmaker who, abruptly, has pushed documentaries deeper into the realm of journalistic immediacy.

For peers and backers of Poitras, the 2012 recipient of a $500,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, it's unsurprising that she has seized a story worth telling. However, her crucial involvement with a confidential source and two newspapers on the same big exclusive is extraordinary.

"She's incredibly driven and determined and she doesn't let obstacles get in the way," said Simon Kilmurry, executive producer of PBS' documentary series "POV," a home to Poitras' work. "She really works at the intersection of journalist and artist and storyteller."

Poitras, 49, who has said she was Edward Snowden's first media contact on the story she helped break, shared bylines on The Washington Post and The Guardian of London articles revealing vast and secret phone and Internet surveillance. She was behind the camera for a gripping video interview, posted online, in which the former spy agency contractor responsible for the leaks calmly defended his actions.

She told this week that she has more footage of Snowden taken in Hong Kong, where he has sought refuge, and which she intends to use in a film. Poitras has previously discussed working on a documentary on state surveillance and whistleblowers, the final part of her trilogy on the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Snowden was drawn to her because of her work on government snooping and the personal fallout that's resulted, including what she called persistent U.S. "border harassment" during her travels, Poitras said.

"You probably don't like how this system works. I think you can tell the story," she recounted Snowden telling her. Their early exchanges had cloak-and-dagger overtones, including his request that they communicate in encrypted type.

He first emailed her anonymously in January and, independently, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald around February, she told Salon. She contacted her other collaborator, Barton Gellman for the Post, about the same time to get the experienced journalist's assessment of Snowden's legitimacy.

In a statement, Gellman said his connection to the story "began with Laura," a friend who had been a fellow with him at New York University, and later included extensive conversations between him and Snowden. Greenwald, who didn't reply to a request for comment, also is a friend of the filmmaker.

Poitras was guarded with Salon in detailing how the reporting unfolded, saying, "I feel a certain need to be cautious about not wanting to do the work for the government." She added she wasn't ready to tell the "whole story now. ... I want to tell it in my own words. I'm a storyteller."

Kirsten Johnson, who works with Poitras as a cinematographer, has been in touch with her.

"She is doing well, and I think she feels the responsibility of the importance of this historical event," Johnson said Thursday.

With the National Security Agency revelations, Poitras has taken the lead on a growing trend in which documentarians are rivaling the speed of "history-in-a-hurry" news reporting while they develop more detailed film accounts.

"Laura has expanded her capacity to explore the story even as she is making the story," said Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute's documentary film program and a longtime producer and supporter. "She's one of the most remarkable filmmakers working today."

Other documentarians have changed the national conversation, said veteran filmmaker and activist Robert Greenwald (no relation to Glenn Greenwald). But the one-two-three punch of combining traditional news outlets, social media and video "is quite extraordinary and my hat goes off" to Poitras and the newspaper reporters, said Greenwald, who recently completed the film "War on Whistleblowers."

"We used to wait five, 10, 15 years before we did a documentary," he said. "Now we're right in the middle and it gives you the ability to affect the story. The old model of waiting for the finished film is less and less important. It's more about getting pieces out."

Not all are swayed by the approach; one observer is downright cynical.

Marvin Kalb, professor emeritus of press and public policy at Harvard University, said he could think of no precedent for a situation where a documentarian drove a story in this manner. His gut feeling is that "she's blown it" and should have kept this information for herself and her documentary, "and in one glorious moment have all of it," said Kalb, a longtime reporter for CBS and NBC News.