By Jeff Labrecque
Updated December 04, 2014 at 01:00 PM EST
Credit: Getty Images

There’s a scene in Laura Poitras’ documentary, CITIZENFOUR, where 29-year-old American intelligence employee Edward Snowden is hunkered down in a Hong Kong hotel room with London Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill when the fire alarm goes off. Snowden, who was surreptitiously meeting with Poitras and the reporters in May 2013 to expose the massive intelligence capability of the U.S. government, freezes—practically terrified. He’d just unplugged the room’s phone and warned his new friends that intelligence agencies can easily use them as microphones, and you can tell that he’s not one who believes in coincidences. “Maybe they got mad that they couldn’t listen in to us via the phone any more,” he says, while Greenwald looks at him to see if he’s joking.

Snowden isn’t joking.

After the Snowden revelations broke, shocking the world with American secrets of comprehensive and invasive global surveillance that wounded American prestige and diplomacy, Snowden’s caution suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Poitras, who narrates CITIZENFOUR, so called because that’s how Snowden signed his initial anonymous emails to her, had already directed two acclaimed documentaries about post-9/11 America, My Country, My Country and The Oath. Her films may have irritated some powerful people; she was added to a U.S. government watch list that caused her to be detained frequently when she traveled. By the time she began working on a third film about global security issues, she had moved to Germany, mostly to guarantee that her sources’ identity and information wouldn’t be compromised by recurring American travel interrogations. She was already editing footage in Berlin when she received the email that would change everything.

Amazingly, Poitras’ camera is there at the moment when Snowden explains why he decided to go public, to be a heroic whistleblower on a still-unquantifiable abuse of power—or, depending on your perspective, a traitor who stole and gave away invaluable American spy secrets.

CITIZENFOUR, which is already playing in theaters, was recently named to the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary, and is considered a leading candidate to take home the prize. Poitras, in New York to accept the Best Documentary prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Gotham Awards, spoke to EW about being a witness to history.

EW: Take me back to January 2013, when the first CITIZENFOUR email arrives. You had been swimming in these waters—investigating government surveillance, landing on government watch lists—and this almost too-good-to-be-true anonymous source seeks you out. There had to be a certain amount of skepticism, that this might be entrapment, in some way.

LAURA POITRAS: I had all those concerns. For sure. Partly because I’m a filmmaker and a visual journalist, and usually, the way that I work is that I’m the one who seeks out people. I don’t get anonymous emails and tips. It’s not the kind of work that I do, so it was completely out of the blue. And it just raised questions like, Why would I be the person to be contacted? I was very aware of the case of the Anonymous hacker Sabu, who flipped and became an FBI agent and was trying to entrap people in exactly those kind of ways. So I was on the lookout for anything that was a tell, any inappropriate asks. I laid out all my skepticisms, and [Snowden] came back with, “You know that I’m not going to entrap you because I’m never going to ask anything of you.” I was completely on the lookout for it, but there were never any asks. It took me a while to sort of wrap my head around it, but it makes sense to me now, in retrospect. I had published a piece about William Binny in The New York Times, where I did talk about being on the watch list, so I think that combination—knowing that I was interested in the topic and that I was also targeted—were the two things that somehow registered when he was thinking about who to contact.

You end up on this journey with journalist Glenn Greenwald to meet Snowden in Hong Kong and the details are just lovely: He’s going to be playing a Rubik’s Cube when you arrive in the hotel lobby, and you’re going to have a scripted exchange that will cue you both in that you are who you’re supposed to be. Even though it’s just a character in a movie, Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat in All the President’s Men is what I’m envisioning. Perhaps when you’re emailing, you’re thinking it’s some 55 year-old guy—someone more like William Binny—someone who’s been through the wars. But instead, you get a 29-year old kid.

In a T-shirt.

Was that an uh-oh moment?

Your mind-set was exactly like what mine was. I totally expected I was going to meet somebody older, that he had been through a lot, seen a lot. Probably not as old as Binny, because it was clear that he was also really, really technically computer savvy. But 40s, late 40s or something. I had completely burned into my head an idea of this person that was not the person that I met. I was actually profoundly shocked. So there was definitely a readjustment period.

Do you think he sensed that?

At some point after we started the interview, he got up to use the restroom, and Glenn and I turned to each other and went, “What the f–k?” We were shocked. And then he came back and we sort of laughed about it. But it made sense, once we sort of wrapped our heads around it—this is someone who really grew up with the Internet and what he saw he felt was so not right was because of his relationship to the promise of the Internet.

I think what’s so compelling in the film is how you have the camera on him as he’s watching the real-time TV coverage of the mushrooming story. He had probably been working on this in his head for years and up to that point, everything was in his control. And then suddenly, you can almost see it on his face: “It’s out of my control now.” How did it feel to you in the room to observe that?

We were in a bit of a weird bubble. We didn’t expect that kind of immediate impact. We all felt it was important, and we knew it was risky. I was certainly very conscious that somebody could try to come into the hotel room at any minute, that the government was going to be really angry. But I didn’t know how the media would respond, if it would just be a one-day story. We didn’t anticipate the speed at which the stories were picked up and escalated in terms of a worldwide awareness. And I think for him, it was a total gamble. What he decided to do was risk everything, with the hope that maybe people would care or pay attention. But I don’t think he had any expectation that they would. Obviously he took the risks because he believed that this was information that the public should know about, that shouldn’t be kept secret. I think he’d made that calculus, that it’s worth it. But I think he had no idea, and so, when he’s watching, I think he’s actually surprised by how quickly and how huge the story became.

Not that he would have regrets, but do you think he suddenly had second thoughts about being the face of this. Because he had talked about being a martyr. He obviously had thought this through. But suddenly to see his face on video jumbotrons and to be suddenly The Guy—

It’s a very complicated set of circumstances. Actually, he very much didn’t want to be a martyr.

But he talks about that.

He would not have left the country if he wanted to be a martyr. If he wanted to be a martyr, he would’ve stayed.

I agree.

Because we know what happened to the NSA Four. We know about Chelsea Manning. I think [Snowden] sought political asylum because he felt that there was no way you can be a whistleblower about these issues and not have the full force of the U.S. government come after you. And I think he didn’t want that to be the example: that if anyone else wanted to come forward with information as a whistleblower, that you have to spend the rest of your life in prison. So that was his reason for seeking political asylum.

But he also was very clear that he was not going to try to hide his identity, which I knew before Hong Kong. When he says “paint a target on my back,” [he’s saying,] “I don’t want to have a situation where there’s a massive leak investigation where dozens of lives get destroyed just so that they can eventually find me.” He was just going to say, “It was me.” But I think he wanted to be able to say, “It was me,” and then try to disappear. Which is a hard thing to do.

But he does say in your film, “I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself.” And I’ve read Daniel Ellsberg’s defense of Snowden, but there are people who admire what he did who are still irked by the fact that he’s in Moscow today.

Seeking political asylum is separate than where he is right now. In terms of the question of Russia, he was transiting through. I think his initial research about Hong Kong as a place where he could seek political asylum and be there without being extradited maybe was wrong. And that’s why he left. Then he got stranded in Moscow trying to get to Latin America. That was never a destination point for him. But it was clear that he was going to seek political asylum, which is I think, making a statement that he actually didn’t want to be a martyr.

Why is the last scene important to you, the one with Edward and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills together in the kitchen?

I was really struck by it, that she’d made that choice to join him [in Moscow]. Because I’m sure that she went through a really horrible time. She knew nothing. People came to the house looking for him, and then you had the media coming after her in a really vicious way. Given what we see in Hong Kong, you realize that even though he’s succeeded communicating information through me and Glenn, you also see the personal sacrifices, in particular on somebody he loved. And when I heard that they were together, I wanted it to be part of the film because I thought it sort of spoke a lot about her and what they have as a relationship. I don’t know. It just seemed important.

Something you said to the New Yorker really stuck out to me: “Plot is so relentless. It’s totally unforgiving, and it also can be simplifying. It can provide resolution where there should be none. It can provide false catharsis.” When you’re putting together this type of film, what did you learn that you had to do differently than what you did on your previous projects?

I definitely like the third act. We ended on the note of it being unresolved and the intention of that is to not provide false catharsis. In other words, we didn’t want it to be a film about Snowden and Glenn, and everyone’s okay in the end. Things are not okay.

In the world, you mean?

Right. The programs are ongoing. There are journalists and whistleblowers who are being targeted in an unprecedented way. So we wanted it to have an unsettling ending, as opposed to a more traditional third-act resolution, where you sort of tie up all the knots. We want the audience to feel like it’s completely unsettled and that they need to engage. In a sense, the ball’s in our court. He’s taken certain risks. We have a lot of information. And now, what are we going to do with it? And the fact that the worst didn’t happen to me or Glenn or Snowden shouldn’t make the audience feel comforted.

Do you find it difficult to be optimistic about American democracy after swimming in these security issues for at least 14 years, making these films. Because when you really stare at it, it can seem pretty bleak.

I wouldn’t do this work if I wasn’t by nature an optimist, because I do think you have to hope that there’s a reason to do this, right? Because it certainly comes with lots of risks and sacrifices. On the other hand, we’re now 13 years into war and people talk about endless war. To me, it seems like a really failed path that we’ve taken. I mean, I’d also say it’s a path that is done in a complete moral vacuum that doesn’t abide by the rule of law. Those kinds of things are very problematic. But I also think the end results don’t achieve the goal. If the goal is security, I think we’re in a much worse situation than we were in 2001. One of the things that is most frightening about Obama is the institutionalization of some of the post 9/11 policies. I mean, Guantanamo is still open. History is just going to condemn us for that. How do we have a prison where people can be there for now over 12 years who’ve never been charged with anything? And we call ourselves a democracy? Those are really tough things to swallow. And they’re not about political left or right. They’re about moral right and wrong. But on the other hand, I live in Germany, which has the most nightmarish history in recent memory. And now it’s a place where privacy is enshrined in the Constitution. You have a functioning democracy, it hasn’t been at war for 13 years, and they actually use words like “peace.”

I like that analogy, but it’s also harrowing to think that we have to look forward to something that tragic to kind of scare us straight.

Right, but I think you have to believe that there are tipping points for changing course. And I think I’d say we’re sort of at a crossroads. I think that it’s possible to change course.

For six years, you were harassed almost every time you left or entered the U.S., but things calmed down in 2012, after Glenn publicly wrote about the madness of the watch lists. Has anything changed since?

Yes. I met this guy named Edward Snowden. I’ve been doing this reporting on the NSA. [Laughs] They’re probably more aware of me than they were before. But they don’t stop me at the border. So things have changed. I think I’m probably still on some kind of a list, but I think that they have to be a little more careful or subtle about what they do right now. I still get nervous every time I return to the United States. Ironically, being put on the watch list ultimately led to Snowden contacting me in a weird chain of events. Because it taught me to learn encryption, it taught me to be more careful, so by the time that Snowden reached out to me, I was both technically savvy, pretty frustrated, and reached a point where I’d already made a decision that I wouldn’t be intimidated by the government to stop doing the work that I do. So in a sense, it was good training.