Why was award-winning documentary maker harassed?

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

July 15, 2015

If you make hard-hitting documentaries that criticize the US government, you are likely to end up on a list that means you will be detained and searched every time you pass through an American airport. That is the harsh truth that Laura Poitras, the celebrated Oscar-winning documentary maker of Citizenfour, discovered between the period of 2006 to 2012.

Now, however, with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation she has launched a lawsuit that she hopes will support other lesser-known documentary makers who might suffer from similar discrimination. Her intention is to shine some light on the problem and to get an admittance out of US’s security agencies as to why she was detained up to 50 times in 6 years.

This simply should not be tolerated in a democracy. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted.

Since the release of her documentary on the Edward Snowden revelations, Citizenfour, Laura Poitras has become something of a celebrity documentary maker. Most people might think that such a high profile documentary might be the reason that she started being detained, but the reality is quite different.

In fact, the incidents occurred before the release of Citizenfour, culminating in 2012. A sudden halt that Poitras puts down to an article by Glenn Greenwald, who at the time wrote an expose on her in his column for Salon.

Now, because of her new-found fame, Poitras feels that she has a reasonable platform from which to launch an investigation. It is for this reason that she has joined forces with EFF, who have on her behalf filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Justice and two other agencies.

Sadly, the reasons for her constant detentions are all too apparent when you look closer at Laura Poitras’ career. That is why she is so determined to get an admittance out of the US government – she feels pretty confident that there are other people out there suffering the same ‘Kafkaesque harassment’.

In 2006, Poitras made a documentary called “My Country, My Country” about the US occupation of Iraq. The film focuses primarily on a doctor who is the father of six, and a Sunni political candidate. In 2010, she released “The Oath”, a movie about Guantanamo Bay and the interrogation of one of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguards.  Both documentaries were incredibly well received, landing Poitras various film festival nominations, including (for My Country, My Country) a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

It was shortly after the release of her 2006 documentary that she began to be stopped and searched. Poitras’ belief is that the Department of Homeland Security placed her on a watch-list, an impression that was once confirmed when airport security told her that her ‘threat rating was the highest the Department of Homeland Security assigns’.

David Sobel, senior counsel at the EFF, commented that,

‘The government used its power to detain people at airports, in the name of national security, to target a journalist whose work has focused on the effects of the US war on terror,’

Thankfully, the article by Glenn Greenwald from 2012 inspired documentary makers to petition the government to stop her harassment (which included having her laptop, camera, phone, and notebooks seized and copied). It is that petition that appears to have worked. Now Poitras feels that she can return that favor by supporting other documentary makers who may be suffering a similar fate for daring to make films that criticize the status quo.

Poitras filed FOIA requests last year in an attempt to get a direct answer as to why she was so regularly detained, but these were ignored, leading to the current lawsuit.

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