Emmy and Academy award nominated filmmaker and MacArthur “Genius Award” recipient Laura Poitras is known for documenting the war on terror and the workings of power. She came to Duke as a visiting artist last semester and has shown several of her films at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in the past. Poitras spoke to The Chronicle upon arriving for a two-day residency at Duke for the Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Filmmaker Series. Poitras will speak about her films and current projects 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Nasher Museum of Art.
The Chronicle: How would you describe your work?
Laura Poitras: I come out of a tradition of cinema verite, which involves following things as they’re actually unfolding real-time, a tradition that started in the ’60s. I follow events that I’m interested in. Lately I’ve been looking at America post-9/11 and the war on terror.
The goals of the work are sort of two-fold. On the one side, I’m interested in telling narratives that are grounded in the human experience and on the other, I’m also interested in creating primary documents and documenting history. I focus on power and how power works. When I’m making a film on Iraq, I’m also making a film on America. We need to film the consequences of power and look at how the war on terror is being played out on a global scale.
I’m not interested in making films about the other—I’m more interested in implicating the audience in what they’re seeing.
TC: How did you get into filmmaking?
LP: I had a career as a professional chef for several years and I moved to San Francisco and started taking film classes and fell in love with cinema. My idea of being a filmmaker was that you had to have this huge crew and delegate labor and I didn’t really want that. What I learned in art school is that you can be a cinematographer and also edit and make films in a smaller setting.
TC: What got you interested in the war on terror and the Muslim world, the topic of several of your films including your recent trilogy about post-9/11 America?
LP: I got interested in this as I was wondering what we [the United States] were doing and what would be the lasting implications of what we were doing. This series is about how are we engaging these notions of preemptive war and this radical shift in what the U.S. is doing, like with Guantanamo, creating this prison beyond law. This just isn’t American and as a documentary filmmaker I have the skills to go in and do something and say something. I was also let down by mainstream media. There is so little media that looks closely at what is going on because so much has just been cheerleading. You do sometimes see scrutiny, but usually not much questioning. I was compelled to do something, so I did.
How old are you?
LP: I don’t know how well you remember, but I remember so vividly when the Abu Ghraib photos were published and I remember thinking, “How did we become the country that does this?” In a way, I think you’re experiencing a very different place than people who are older and can more juxtapose notions of this country. Like right now I’m working on surveillance issues and the targeting of Muslims in this country post-9/11 and it’s so wrong. It’s just so wrong. I keep hoping for something to shift, but I’m not that optimistic.
TC: What difficulties have you faced or are you facing in your work and how do you deal with them?
LP: After I made the film in Iraq, I was put on a [U.S.] government watch list, which means I’m detained every time I travel. Border agents meet me at the airplane and I’ve been interrogated about what I’ve done on my travels, who I talked to. I’ve had my computer confiscated and been followed on camera and been threatened that if I don’t answer questions they’ll find it in my electronics.
It’s intimidation to a degree to deter others from doing similar work. I’ve had people tell me they don’t want to email me because they don’t want to get caught on “the list.” But I’ve also found huge amounts of support in the documentary world and funding so there’s a limit to what the government will do. As a white women who holds a United States passport, I have a lot of protection compared to someone else. For those who can, I think we have a responsibility to push back. It’s really an obligation.
TC: What is your hope for your films?
LP: I always naively think that if people understood things better that things would change—understand things better in terms of the information, but also emotionally. If you were to imagine the devastation that Iraq has gone through—that an entire people have been displaced, an entire intellectual class has been wiped out—it will take generations to recover from this devastation. If Americans could grasp the devastation, it would shift the politics, and that’s the hope. It’s kind of naive but it motivates me to do the work, that there would be some sense of accountability… that you’ll do something for today and it will have a lasting impact, hopefully. I think sometimes that in documentaries we sometimes do things not just for now but for things that will be built upon.
TC: How have your films been received in the different countries they focus on, including the United States, Iraq and Yemen?
LP: The films have been shown widely internationally. The film I did on Iraq was shown on Al-Jazeera and I’m really happy that my films are respected and appreciated [internationally]. When I get feedback from Iraqis or Yemenis that praise the films, that really is the most meaningful praise that I get. I think that there’s a general feel that the films are of those places, that they’re not just the “parachute-in journalism” that you often see happening.
In the United States my films have been on public television. Even though I think I have very strong political views on some of these issues, I think my films are somewhat open and allow for different viewings. People across a political spectrum seem to appreciate the fact that I’m treating the audience with respect and that they can come to their own conclusions. My experience has been that there is too little of that going on. I think [my work] has been perceived as an on-the-ground view that usually is not accessible to most people. It gives insight to people, especially people who are trying to make decisions about those areas and I think that‘s a good thing.
TC: What role do you think films have in our world and society?
LP: Documentary films are becoming increasingly important in filling the gap in mainstream journalism, especially broadcast. They’re coming forward as an important investigative tool that is in-depth and independent. As things become more narrow and corporatized, [documentaries] are increasingly vital. Documentaries are about stories that take people on journeys and transform audiences. They’re artmaking and storymaking. So journalism, but also other things. They’re also documents of history.
TC: What advise do you have to aspiring filmmakers and changemakers?
LP: My biggest advice would be learn your craft and all those basic things, take risks for sure and follow what you’re passionate about, because there are going to be times when no one’s going to want to see [your work] and you’re going to have to be passionate to keep going.
I think it’s important to know where those side entrances are. Oftentimes those unexpected doors and entry ways are how you can get in. You can always ask for access through the front door, but if that doesn’t work, keep trying and go to the side—you might be able to get access that way. Learning to make films or becoming a journalist happens with practice. You learn and you make mistakes. It just takes time. One other thing I’d say, I’d know your strengths and know your weaknesses. If there are things you feel confident in, then great, but if not, figure out what support you need. Maybe you’re a really great shooter but need some help editing. Try to be really aware of what you most can contribute and what you can work on and need help with.
TC: Any additional or lingering thoughts?
LP: People often think of documentaries as being about information, but I think more and more they’re good storytelling. You might get a better story sitting down and watching a documentary than sitting down and watching a Hollywood movie. Documentaries are often just as gripping as narrative. People should watch documentaries. There’s some amazing work being done right now. I can also say that it’s great to be back at Duke and the documentary studies program here is really great and you guys are really lucky to have it. It really nurtures a community among filmmakers and photographers and I’m really excited to be back.