In 2004, journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras traveled to Iraq to document the lives of the country's citizens under U.S. occupation. Poitras focused on Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, a Sunni politician. The resulting documentary, My Country, My Country, was the first in a trilogy of films — including Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden — Poitras has made about the ramifications of the American surveillance state after 9/11. In November of 2004, Poitras filmed eight minutes and 16 seconds of footage from a roof in Baghdad following the raid of a mosque.
The last room of Poitras's exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, "Astro Noise," which closes May 1, features her voice on a loop narrating her now-12-year ordeal with the Department of Homeland Security. "These eight minutes changed my life, but I didn't know it at the time. After returning to the United States, I was placed on a government watch list and detained and searched every time I crossed the U.S. border." The footage from the documentary plays alongside. ("Astro Noise" refers to the name of the encrypted file Snowden sent to Poitras in 2011.) She moved to Berlin for several years as a result of being on that watch list, and has only recently moved back to the U.S. Looking at the installations in "Astro Noise" meant facing the intricate design of war. There were reproductions of classified drone-strike orders that stood under dimmed lights as if they were ancient artifacts, not contemporary communications.
In addition to running a film studio, Praxis Films, Poitras is also one of the founding editors, with Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, a website dedicated "to publishing fearless, adversarial journalism." This March, Poitras co-launched Field of Vision, a digital lab for alternative filmmaking. "We just premiered a short called Concerned Student 1950 at the True/False festival," says Poitras. "It's about the students organizing at Mizzou. With this project [Field of Vision], we're commissioning other people to make films. Students who were at the university who have the access. It's an example of how to build trust where press is normally shut out." Concerned Student 1950 can be viewed here.
I met with Poitras in her New York studio to talk about "Astro Noise," the art of surveillance, and the global and domestic repercussions of the war on terror.