Filmmaker Laura Poitras and the “PRISM” Leak

Posted June 18, 2013

A T/F filmmaker was at the center of the major news story of last week, highlighting the increasing importance of documentarians as journalists. Director Laura Poitras co-authored articles in both the Washington Post and The Guardian disclosing information about the NSA’s secret “PRISM” program, which mines data on U.S. citizens from internet companies. Poitras revealed in an interview with Salon that she was contacted by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden while in Hong Kong working on her forthcoming documentary film about leaks and state secrets in post 9/11 America.

Poitras received our True Vision Award at T/F 2010 where she presented the first two parts a proposed trilogy about the “war on terror” and its implications. In a director’s statement, she describes her aim in the series.

In each film, my goal has been to understand these world events through the stories of the people living them. I also want the films to serve as primary documents. As a nation, I don’t think Americans have begun to come to terms with 9/11 and its repercussions (Guantanamo, the invasion or Iraq, legalization of torture, etc.).

The first film, My Country, My Country (2006), follows Riyadh al-Adhadh, an Iraqi medical doctor running for office in early post-Saddam elections. Al-Adhadh’s story demonstrates the perils and contradictions of a fledgling democracy, growing under U.S. military occupation.

The second film, The Oath (2010), cross cuts the story of two men, one a magnetic presence, the other a felt absence, both former associates of Osama Bin-Laden. Yemeni cab driver Abu Jandal broods about his troubling past and his brother-in-law Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who has been detained as an enemy combatant in Guantanamo.

As a preview of the third part of her trilogy, Poitras created the short film The Program for the NY Times Op-Docs in August of last year. In it whistle-blower William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the NSA, discusses the “Stellar Winds” information storage program.

Compare this with the interview Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald conducted last week with Edward Snowden about the newly disclosed “PRISM” program.

Poitras has suffered repeated harassment and interrogation by the Department of Homeland Security for her work on these and related stories. In her courage and diligence, she continues to exemplify the critical role documentary filmmakers can play in our public discourse.