Laura Poitras has been called “one of the most important directors working in documentary today”, and it’s undeniable. Alongside such crusading male counterparts as Alex Gibney, Errol Morris and Michael Moore, Poitras’ award-winning films have been at the forefront of non-fiction filmmaking these past few years. She titled her most recent work, a frank and illuminating portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Risk – a word that rather sums up the very real dangers that surround her.
Now, for the first time, Poitras’ four films as sole director are collected in a new DVD box-set by Dogwoof, a UK distributor that specialises in releasing documentary films. The best-known of this quartet is Citizenfour, her 2014 Oscar-winning film about Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked classified information from the National Security Association in 2013, controversial documents that detailed various covert global surveillance programs.
Named after Snowden’s online alias, Citizenfour saw Poitras on the ground – alongside two journalists from The Guardian – as Snowden handed over thousands of NSA cables in his hotel room in Hong Kong. Filled with paranoia and suspicion, it’s a genuine political thriller, but one that came at a high cost. While Snowden ended up seeking asylum in Moscow, Poitras moved to Berlin in 2015 after what she called “Kafkaesque harassment” from the US government.
Citizenfour is the final part of her so-called “9/11 trilogy”, after the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2012), both of which are also included in this set. The former centres on Dr Riyadh al-Adhadh, a doctor at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, a father of six, and a Sunni political candidate. As for The Oath, it follows two men seen by many as terrorists – a former bodyguard and a former driver to Osama bin Laden. Both integrity-driven films were enough to convince Snowden to reach out to Poitras.
As for the final film on the DVD, Risk (2016), it’s a fascinating portrait of the controversial Assange, a project that spans his time holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It’s a fine example of what happens when your subject morphs before you very eyes. Once the scourge of governments with WikiLeaks, Assange has spent the past five years hidden away in the embassy, rather than face the possibility of extradition to Sweden after becoming the subject of sexual assault allegations.
A film that wrapped around her work on Citizenfour, Risk shows exactly what Poitras is about. Analysing her increasingly troubled relationship with Assange, she’s a filmmaker willing to question, rather than accept at face value. The FBI might refer to her as “an anti-United States” documentarian, as heard in one recording in the film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Here is a director who believes in the preservation of free speech above all else.
Laura Poitras Collection is available to buy on DVD from 6 November. For more information, visit: www.shop.dogwoof.com.
1. Still from Risk.