Laura Poitras (/ˈpɔɪtrəs/; born February 2, 1964) is an American director and producer of documentary films. She lives in New York City.
Poitras has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden, while My Country, My Country received a nomination in the same category in 2007. She won the 2013 George Polk Award for "national security reporting" related to the NSA disclosures. The NSA reporting by Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Barton Gellman contributed to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and The Washington Post.
She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, 2012 MacArthur Fellow, and one of the initial supporters of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Laura Poitras is the middle daughter of Patricia "Pat" and James "Jim" Poitras, who in 2007 donated $20 million to found The Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at McGovern Institute for Brain Research, part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her parents keep a home in Massachusetts, but live mostly in Orlando, Florida. Her sisters are Christine Poitras, an ESL teacher; and Jennifer Poitras, a disaster response planner and consultant.
Growing up, Laura planned to become a chef, and spent several years as a cook at L'Espalier, a French restaurant located in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. However, after finishing Sudbury Valley School, where there were no grades and no division of students by age, she moved to San Francisco and lost interest in becoming a chef. Instead she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute with experimental filmmakers Ernie Gehr and Janis Crystal Lipzin. In 1992, Poitras moved to New York to pursue filmmaking. In 1996, she graduated from The New School for Public Engagement with a bachelor's degree.
Poitras co-directed, produced, and shot her 2003 documentary, Flag Wars, about gentrification in Columbus, Ohio. It earned a Peabody Award, Best Documentary at both the 2003 South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The film also launched the 2003 season of the PBS TV series POV. It was nominated for a 2004 Independent Spirit Award and a 2004 Emmy Award. Poitras's other early films include O' Say Can You See... (2003) and Exact Fantasy (1995).
Her 2006 film My Country, My Country, about life for Iraqis under U.S. occupation, was nominated for an Academy Award. Her 2010 film The Oath, about two Yemeni men caught up in America's War on Terror, won the Excellence in Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The two films are parts of a trilogy. The third part Citizenfour from 2014 details how the War on Terror increasingly focuses on Americans through surveillance, covert activities, and attacks on whistleblowers.
On August 22, 2012, in a forum of short documentaries produced by independent filmmakers, The New York Times published an "Op-doc" produced by Poitras entitled The Program. It was preliminary work that was to be included in a documentary planned for release as the final part of the trilogy. The documentary was based on interviews with William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the National Security Agency, who became a whistleblower and described the details of the Stellar Wind project that he helped to design. He stated that the program he worked on had been designed for foreign espionage, but was converted in 2001 to spying on citizens in the United States, prompting concerns by him and others that the actions were illegal and unconstitutional and that led to their disclosures.
The Program implied that a facility being built at Bluffdale, Utah is part of domestic surveillance, intended for storage of massive amounts of data collected from a broad range of communications that could be mined readily for intelligence without warrants. Poitras reported that on October 29, 2012 the United States Supreme Court would hear arguments regarding the constitutionality of the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that were used to authorize the creation of such facilities and justify such actions.
In 2012 Poitras took an active part in the three-month exposition of Whitney Biennial exhibition of contemporary American art.
Poitras has been subject to monitoring by the U.S. Government, which she speculates is because of a wire transfer she sent in 2006 to Riyadh al-Adhadh, the Iraqi medical doctor and Sunni political candidate who was the subject of her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. After completing My Country, My Country, Poitras claims, "I've been placed on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) watch list" and have been notified by airport security "that my 'threat rating' was the highest the Department of Homeland Security assigns". She says her work has been hampered by constant harassment by border agents during more than three dozen border crossings into and out of the United States. She has been detained for hours and interrogated and agents have seized her computer, cell phone and reporters notes and not returned them for weeks. Once she was threatened with being refused entry back into the United States. In response to a Glenn Greenwald article about this, a group of film directors started a petition to protest the government's actions against her. In April 2012 Poitras was interviewed about surveillance on Democracy Now! and called elected leaders' behavior "shameful".
2015 lawsuit over government harassment
In January 2014 Poitras filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to learn the reason for being searched, detained and interrogated on multiple occasions. After receiving no response to her FOIA request, Poitras filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and other security agencies in July 2015.
Global surveillance disclosures
In 2013 Poitras was one of the initial three journalists to meet Edward Snowden in Hong Kong and to receive copies of the leaked NSA documents. Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald are the only two people with full archives of the NSA, according to Greenwald.
Poitras helped to produce stories exposing previously secret U.S. intelligence activities, which earned her the 2013 Polk award and contributed to the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and The Washington Post. She later worked with Jacob Appelbaum and writers and editors at Der Spiegel to cover disclosures about mass surveillance, particularly those relating to NSA activity in Germany.
She filmed, edited, and produced Channel 4's alternative to the Royal Christmas Message by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013, the "Alternative Christmas Message", featuring Edward Snowden.
In October 2013 Poitras joined with reporters Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill to establish an on-line investigative journalism publishing venture funded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, what became First Look Media. Omidyar's "concern about press freedoms in the US and around the world" sparked the idea for the new media outlet. The first publication from that group, a digital magazine called The Intercept, launched on February 10, 2014. Poitras stood down from her editor role in September 2016 to focus on Field of Vision, a First Look Media project focused on non-fiction films.
On March 21, 2014, Poitras joined Glenn Greenwald and Barton Gellman via Skype on a panel at the Sources and Secrets Conference to discuss the legal and professional threats to journalists covering national security surveillance and whistleblower stories, like that of Edward Snowden. Poitras was asked if she would hazard an entry into the United States and she responded that she planned to attend an April 11 event, regardless of the legal or professional threats posed by US authorities. Poitras and Greenwald returned to the US to receive their awards unimpeded.
In May 2014, Poitras was reunited with Edward Snowden in Moscow along with journalist Glenn Greenwald.
1971 is a documentary film co-produced by Poitras. The film, about the 1971 Media, Pennsylvania raid of FBI offices, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18, 2014.
In September 2014, the Associated Press reported that Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden, would premiere on October 10 at the New York Film Festival. Earlier that year, Poitras told the AP she was editing the film in Berlin because she feared her source material would be seized by the government inside the U.S. Film executive Harvey Weinstein said Citizenfour had changed his opinion about Edward Snowden, describing the documentary as "one of the best movies, period." The film is distributed in the U.S. by RADiUS-TWC, a division of The Weinstein Company, which is co-owned by Weinstein and his brother Bob Weinstein.
In an interview with the Washington Post about Citizenfour shortly before the film's release, Poitras said that she considered herself to be the narrator of the film but made a choice not to be seen on camera: "I come from a filmmaking tradition where I'm using the camera—it's my lens to express the filmmaking I do. In the same way that a writer uses their language, for me it's the images that tell the story ... the camera is my tool for documenting things, so I stay mostly behind it." Citizenfour won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2014.
Poitras is portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Melissa Leo in the 2016 biographical drama film Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden.
On February 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its first solo museum exhibition portraying immersive environments that incorporate documentary footage, architectural interventions, primary documents, and narrative structures to invite visitors to interact with the material gathered by Poitras in strikingly intimate and direct ways.
- 2008: Creative Capital Award in Moving Image
- 2010: True Vision Award, True/False Film Festival
- 2010: Fellowship and residence at the MacDowell Colony.
- 2012: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "Genius Grant", one of 23 MacArthur Fellows for 2012
- 2013: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award with three other people.
- 2013: George Polk Award for National Security Reporting with Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill
- 2014: Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize with Edward Snowden
- 2014: Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded to The Washington Post and The Guardian for the NSA reporting on which she worked, along with Barton Gellman, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. Poitras was bylined in both publications.
- 2014: Henri Nannen Award by Gruner + Jahr and Stern."
- 2015: Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2014 for Citizenfour.
- 2015: Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow.
- 2015: German Film Award for Best Documentary Film of 2015 for Citizenfour.
- Creative Capital (January 10, 2008). "Laura Poitras". Creative Capital. Retrieved December 3, 2015.
- Jonathon Braden (February 28, 2010). "Picturing a better vision". Columbia Tribune. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
- Felicia R. Lee (October 1, 2012). "Surprise Grants Transforming 23 More Lives". New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012.
- "Laura Poitras – MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved October 4, 2012.
- "EFF Pioneer Awards 2013". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved October 6, 2013.
- "2013 George Polk Award Winners". Long Island University. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
- Ridenhour Prizes. "The Ridenhour Prizes – Fostering the spirit of courage and truth". Ridenhour.org. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
- "Snowden-leaked NSA reports earn Pulitzer". Australian. Retrieved April 21, 2014.
- "Glenn Greenwald Reacts To Pulitzer Prize". The Huffington Post. April 20, 2014. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
- "Guardian and Washington Post win Pulitzer prize for NSA revelations" (Press release). Theguardian.com. April 14, 2014. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
- "Henri Nannen Award for Efforts for Independence of the Press". Bertelsmann.com. Bertelsmann. May 8, 2014. Retrieved June 7, 2014.
- "Die Preisträger des deutschen Filmpreises 2015 (German)" (PDF). deutscher-filmpreis.de. Retrieved June 20, 2015.