Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras (/ˈpɔɪtrəs/; born February 2, 1964)[3] is an American director and producer of documentary films.[4] She lives in New York City.[5]

Laura Poitras
Poitras in 2014
Born (1964-02-02) February 2, 1964[1]
EducationThe New School
  • Director
  • producer

Poitras has received numerous awards for her work, including the 2015 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden,[6][7] while My Country, My Country received a nomination in the same category in 2007.[8] 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.[9][10][11][12][13]

She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, 2012 MacArthur Fellow, the creator of Field of Vision,[14] and one of the initial supporters of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

She was awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting in 1984 and the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence by Harvard's Nieman Foundation in 2014.

Early life

Born in Boston, Massachusetts,[2] Laura Poitras is the middle daughter of Patricia "Pat" and James "Jim" Poitras,[15] who in 2007 donated $20 million[16] to found The Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at McGovern Institute for Brain Research, part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[15] Her parents keep a home in Massachusetts, but live mostly in Orlando, Florida.[16] Her sisters are Christine Poitras, an ESL teacher, and Jennifer Poitras, a disaster response planner and consultant.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] In 1996, she graduated from The New School for Public Engagement with a bachelor's degree.[18][19]


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.[5] Poitras's other early films include O' Say Can You See... (2003) and Exact Fantasy (1995).[5]

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.[20] 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.[21][22] 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.[23]

Government surveillance

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.[24] 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".[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] In April 2012 Poitras was interviewed about surveillance on Democracy Now! and called elected leaders' behavior "shameful".[28][29]

2015 lawsuit over government harassment

In January 2014 Poitras filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act[30] to learn the reason for being searched, detained and interrogated on multiple occasions.[31] After receiving no response to her FOIA request, Poitras filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and other security agencies in July 2015.[32] More than a year later, Poitras received 1,000+ pages of material from the federal government. The documents indicate that Poitras's repeated detainments were due to U.S. government suspicion that she had prior knowledge of a 2004 ambush on U.S. troops in Iraq, an allegation Poitras denies.[33]

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.[18][34] Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald are the only two people with full archives of Snowden's leaked NSA documents, according to Greenwald.[18][35]

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.[36][37] She later revealed in her documentary Risk that she had a brief romantic relationship with Appelbaum.[38]

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.[39][40]

In October 2013 Poitras joined with reporters Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill to establish an on-line investigative journalism publishing venture funded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar,[41] 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.[42] The first publication from that group, a digital magazine called The Intercept, launched on February 10, 2014.[43] 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.[44]

On March 21, 2014, Poitras joined 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.[45] Poitras and Greenwald returned to the US to receive their awards unimpeded.[46][47]

In May 2014, Poitras was reunited with Snowden in Moscow along with Greenwald.[48]

1971 documentary

1971 is a documentary film co-produced by Poitras.[49] The film, about the 1971 Media, Pennsylvania raid of FBI offices, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18, 2014.[50]

Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour is a documentary about Edward Snowden that premiered on October 10, 2014 at New York Film Festival. In 2014 Poitras told the Associated Press she was editing the film in Berlin because she feared her source material would be seized by the government inside the U.S.[51] Film executive Harvey Weinstein said Citizenfour had changed his opinion about Edward Snowden, describing the documentary as "one of the best movies, period." [52]

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."[53]

Citizenfour won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2014.[54]

Poitras is portrayed by actress Melissa Leo in the 2016 biographical drama film Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden.

Astro Noise

On February 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its first solo museum exhibition, Astro Noise by Poitras, 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.[55]

Risk (2016)

Poitras authored a documentary called Risk, on the life of Julian Assange. Poitras and others described Assange's statements about women as "troubling".[56][57][58] Assange alleges in the film that he is the victim of a radical feminist conspiracy over his being wanted for questioning on sexual assault allegations by the Swedish authorities.[58] In the film, he argues that one of the women accusing him of sexual assault was not credible because she founded Gothenburg’s largest lesbian nightclub.[58] According to Poitras, Assange disapproves of the documentary film because of its depiction of his troubling relationship with women.[57] In May 2017, Wikileaks' four lawyers publicly wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek asserting that the film serves to undermine WikiLeaks at a time when the Trump administration announced that it intends to prosecute journalists, editors and associates of WikiLeaks. The lawyers also scrutinize the way in which Poitras changed the film after its premiere in 2016 as well as other critical aspects.[59]


Selected filmography


  1. Citizenfour (Motion picture). 2014. Noted on US Customs and Border Protection logs shown at 0:04:40.
  2. "Laura Poitras". Whitney Museum of American Art. Archived from the original on December 20, 2014. Retrieved January 3, 2015.
  3. "Laura Poitras Talks 'Citizenfour' Nomination: Nominees Night Party", The Hollywood Reporter Video interview. Pronunciation confirmed at beginning of video.
  4. "The inside story". The National. February 17, 2010. Archived from the original on February 19, 2010.
  5. ZEIT ONLINE GmbH, Hamburg, Germany (August 19, 2013). "NSA-Affäre: Die Berliner Snowden-Connection". ZEIT ONLINE. Retrieved October 22, 2014.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. "The 87th Academy Awards". Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  7. D'Addario, Daniel (February 22, 2015). "Citizenfour Wins Best Documentary at the Oscars". Time. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
  8. "Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour wins Oscar". The Guardian. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
  9. "A Pulitzer triumph: Snowden reporting wins journalism's top prize". Retrieved April 20, 2014.
  10. "Greenwald, Poitras, Gellman, MacAskill: key in NSA coverage". Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  11. "Guardian and Washington Post win Pulitzer prize for NSA revelations". Guardian. Retrieved April 20, 2014.
  12. Mirkinson, Jack. "The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor". Retrieved April 17, 2014.
  13. "Filmmaker Laura Poitras' Work Rewarded With a Pulitzer Prize". Retrieved April 17, 2014.
  14. "Laura Poitras takes documentaries into the future with Field of Vision". The Guardian. September 30, 2015.
  15. Karagianis, Liz (Spring 2008). "Fulfilling a Dream". MIT Spectrum. Retrieved February 17, 2014.
  16. Leon Neyfakh (October 27, 2014). "Filmmaker focuses on Edward Snowden, his leaks". The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 7, 2014.
  17. Krasny, Michael (October 21, 2014). "'Citizenfour' Tells the Story of NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden". Forum (Podcast). San Francisco: KQED-FM. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
  18. Maass, Peter (August 18, 2013). "How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets". NYTimes. Retrieved August 18, 2013.
  19. "Laura Poitras: Secret No Longer". Retrieved August 14, 2013.
  20. "The Oath Honored at the Sundance Film Festival". Beyond the Box. October 20, 2001. Archived from the original on February 19, 2010.
  21. Poitras, Laura, The Program, New York Times Op-Docs, August 22, 2012
  22. Poitras, Laura (August 29, 2012). Op-Docs (ed.). "NSA Whistle-Blower Tells All: The Program". Uploaded by The New York Times via YouTube. Retrieved October 21, 2014. The filmmaker Laura Poitras profiles William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the National Security Agency who helped design a top-secret program he says is broadly collecting Americans' personal data.
  23. Roberta Smith (March 1, 2012). "A Survey of a Different Color 2012 Whitney Biennial". NY Times. Retrieved March 5, 2012.
  24. Packer, George (October 20, 2014). "The Holder of Secrets: Laura Poitras's closeup view of Edward Snowden". Profiles. The New Yorker. 90 (32): 50–59. Retrieved February 10, 2015. Then again, [Poitras] told me, the trigger may have been a wire transfer that she sent in 2006 to Dr. Riyadh when his family fled Iraq’s civil war. [Journalist John] Bruning's book claims that the battalion suspected the doctor of being an insurgent. (There is no evidence for this, either.)
  25. "My Country, My Country. Film Synopsis". PBS. Retrieved May 27, 2007.
  26. Glenn Greenwald (April 8, 2012), "U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border", Salon, archived from the original on April 8, 2012, retrieved May 2, 2016
  27. Mike Flemming, Documentary Directors Protest Homeland Security Treatment Of Helmer Laura Poitras, Deadline Hollywood, April 9, 2012.
  28. Democracy Now! (April 23, 2012), More Secrets on State Surveillance: Exclusive Part 2 With NSA Whistleblower, Targeted Hacker, Democracy Now! via YouTube, retrieved May 3, 2016
  29. More Secrets on Growing State Surveillance: Exclusive Part 2 with NSA Whistleblower, Targeted Hacker, Democracy Now!, video and transcript, April 23, 2012.
  30. "Poitras FOIA Complaint". Retrieved July 14, 2015.
  31. "'Citizenfour' Director Laura Poitras Sues Over "Kafkaesque" Airport Screening". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 14, 2015.
  32. "Oscar-Winner Laura Poitras Sues After U.S Ignores FOIA Request". Retrieved July 14, 2015.
  33. "Filmmaker Laura Poitras finally learns why she endured airport stops for years". Toronto Star. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
  34. patty. "Edward Snowden Evolved From Gaming Geek to Conscientious Whistleblower". Truthout. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  35. Boadle, Anthony (August 7, 2013). "New U.S. spying revelations coming from Snowden leaks -journalist". Reuters UK. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  36. John Lubbock (October 2013), Jacob Appelbaum's Utopia Archived March 19, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Vice: Motherboard
  37. Embassy Espionage: The NSA's Secret Spy Hub in Berlin Der Spiegel October 27, 2013
  38. Zeitchik, Stephen. Perspective With Laura Poitras' re-cut 'Risk,' a director controversially changes her mind about Julian Assange, Los Angeles Times. May 6, 2017.
  39. Peter Walker. "Edward Snowden broadcasts Channel 4's alternative Christmas Day message". the Guardian. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  40. "Alternative Christmas Message". Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  41. '"There is a War on Journalism": on NSA Leaks & New Investigative Reporting Venture', Democracy Now!, December 5, 2013. Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  42. 'Pierre Omidyar commits $250m to new media venture with Glenn Greenwald', The Guardian, October 16, 2013. Retrieved January 3, 2014.
  43. Russell, Jon (February 10, 2014). "The Intercept, the first online publication from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, is now live". The Next Web. Retrieved February 10, 2014.
  44. Poitras, Laura (September 20, 2016). "Field of Vision Is Moving". The Intercept. Retrieved January 12, 2017.
  45. ""Sources and Secrets: A Conference on the Press, the Government and National Security" The Times Center presented by the George Polk Awards and hosted by The New York Times, in cooperation with CUNY TV, the Media Law Resource Center, and the Media Law Resource Center Institute. C-Span. New York City". March 21, 2014. Retrieved April 1, 2014.
  46. "Video: Laura Poitras & Glenn Greenwald Back in U.S. for First Time Since Breaking NSA-Snowden Story". Democracy Now. Retrieved April 15, 2014.
  47. "Journalists Who Broke News on N.S.A. Surveillance Return to the U.S." NYT. Retrieved April 15, 2014.
  48. "Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden And Laura Poitras Reunite for a Selfie in Moscow". Huffington Post. Retrieved June 6, 2014.
  49. Benzine, Adam (January 20, 2014). "Laura Poitras backs FBI break-in doc". Realscreen. Retrieved May 11, 2014.
  50. ""1971" – Tribeca Film Festival". Tribeca Film Festival official website. Tribeca Institute. Archived from the original on October 14, 2014.
  51. "Snowden Documentary to Premiere at NY Festival". ABC News. Associated Press. July 1, 2013.
  52. "Harvey Weinstein on Edward Snowden's 'Citizenfour': "It Changed My Opinion of Him"". Hollywood Reporter. October 27, 2014.
  53. "Snowden filmmaker Laura Poitras: 'Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies'". Washington Post. October 23, 2014.
  54. "The 87th Academy Awards".
  55. Foran, Clare (February 10, 2016). "'Astro Noise': When Mass Surveillance Is Art,". The Atlantic.
  56. Zeitchik, Steven (May 6, 2017). "With Laura Poitras' re-cut 'Risk,' a director controversially changes her mind about Julian Assange". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved May 9, 2017.
  57. Lang, Brent (May 3, 2017). "'Risk' Director Laura Poitras on Her Explosive Julian Assange Documentary". Variety. Retrieved May 9, 2017.
  58. "Julian Assange Is Not Ready for His Close Up". Foreign Policy. Retrieved May 9, 2017.
  59. "Wikileaks attorneys blast Citizen Four maker Poitras". Newsweek. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  60. Creative Capital (January 10, 2008). "Laura Poitras". Creative Capital. Retrieved December 3, 2015.
  61. Jonathon Braden (February 28, 2010). "Picturing a better vision". Columbia Tribune. Archived from the original on March 7, 2012. Retrieved February 28, 2010.
  62. "Anonymous Was a Woman Award News".
  63. Felicia R. Lee (October 1, 2012). "Surprise Grants Transforming 23 More Lives". The New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012.
  64. "Laura Poitras – MacArthur Foundation". Retrieved October 4, 2012.
  65. "EFF Pioneer Awards 2013". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved October 6, 2013.
  66. "2013 George Polk Award Winners". Long Island University. Retrieved March 2, 2014.
  67. Ridenhour Prizes. "The Ridenhour Prizes – Fostering the spirit of courage and truth". Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  68. Sheffield Doc/Fest. "Sheffield Doc/Fest Award Winners - 2014".
  69. "Glenn Greenwald Reacts To Pulitzer Prize". The Huffington Post. April 20, 2014. Retrieved October 22, 2014.
  70. Pilkington, Ed (April 14, 2014). "Guardian and Washington Post win Pulitzer prize for NSA revelations" (Press release). The Guardian. Retrieved April 5, 2017.
  71. "Henri Nannen Award for Efforts for Independence of the Press". Bertelsmann. May 8, 2014. Retrieved June 7, 2014.
  72. "UCLA Anderson School of Management Announces 2014 Gerald Loeb Award Winners". UCLA Anderson School of Management. June 24, 2014. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  73. "Ford Foundation Launches 'Art of Change' Fellowship Program". Ford Foundation, 9 April 2015. Accessed 10 October 2017
  74. "Die Preisträger des deutschen Filmpreises 2015 (German)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on June 20, 2015. Retrieved June 20, 2015.
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