Life during wartime: Laura Poitras on doc-making after 9/11

“I was with contractors in Kurdistan and one night, one of them told me he needed to use my room to do an arms deal.  As a documentary filmmaker, I said, ‘Of course, please come in and use my room for your arms deal.’”

Laura Poitras

Just your typical Laura Poitras story. The acclaimed director took time Saturday to share stories with the PopTech conference crowd about the making, and consequences, of her most recent films – My Country, My Country and The Oath, which form part of a trilogy she’s making about life after 9/11.

“With my work I’m trying to bridge the gap between what we actually know and what we actually feel,” she said. “I’m trying to make films that make you feel. And these films are about us. Even if they’re filmed over there, they still have to do with us.”

Poitras spent over a year living with an Iraqi family and covering the run-up to the 2005 elections. As part of the story she was telling, Poitras traveled with military contractors who had been hired to transport election materials in the northern Kurdistan section of Iraq (hence the above story). My Country, My Country was released in August 2006 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Poitras followed that effort with The Oath, a film about the lives of two men: one, Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden turned cab driver and the other, Salim Hamdan, a prisoner in Guatanamo Bay who became the plaintiff in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the only Supreme Court case to come out of the infamous military prison.

“I was drawn to this story, but also afraid of this story,” she said. “I was afraid of the storytelling dangers of making a film about Al-Qaeda but I decided that having insight into this world was extremely important.” The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the "Excellence in Cinematography Award for U.S. Documentary,” and was released into theaters in May.

Laura’s is also a cautionary tale; since 2006 she’s been unable to get through a U.S. airport without being detained, her belongings are often confiscated, and the government has made no secret that it’s keeping tabs on her.

“It’s great to talk about all the good uses of technology but we also have a responsibility to talk about when technologies are used not in the service of good, but in the service of bad.”

Not surprisingly the final film in the trilogy will concern the culture of surveillance in the U.S.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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