Edward Snowden

After Snowden film, Laura Poitras starts documentary streaming service

Filmmaker and her partners seek a 'Life Magazine for the internet age' in Field of Vision, which will commission short-form documentaries and stream them free of charge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 12:38pm

Most directors who win an Oscar follow a well-trodden path: they entertain new offers from producers and financiers or they look to jumpstart their own long-gestating film project.

Laura Poitras, who filmed Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room when he made his explosive revelations of government spying on citizens, and who won an Oscar for directing the subsequent film about the affair, Citizenfour, has gone in a rather different direction. After she took the documentary prize in February for her examination of Snowden and US government surveillance, she decided to try something few filmmakers undertake: become an entrepreneur.

 Poitras and the documentary-world veterans Charlotte Cook and A. J. Schnack have created Field of Vision, a company that will commission short-form documentaries and make them available for free streaming on its website.

 This week, when the first block of movies premiered at the New York Film Festival, Field of Vision announced itself as a bold if by no means certain venture: a platform for new documentary work that stands apart from venues such as PBS, HBO and Netflix.

 “I love long-form documentaries, so I don’t think the form needs to be reinvented,” Poitras said last week in her production company office overlooking New York’s Hudson River. “But there’s a shift in how we consume media and stories. I don’t think creative people should be bound by one format.”

 To execute that mission, between 10 and 17 films, a new one each week, will go live on the Field of Vision site between now and December in what the founders are calling a “season”, with a new batch offered again beginning in early 2016. They compare their goal to that of Life Magazine in its heyday - a visually minded window into global crises and stories.

 The company’s efforts are funded by First Look Media, the independent outfit created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. First Look also funds the Intercept, the online journalism site that Poitras co-founded with “Citizenfour” subject Glenn Greenwald and fellow investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. There will be no advertising on the site.

 Many of the Field of Vision films will be one-offs. Where there are multiple chapters, they will go live, in sequence, the same week.

 Some big names will be involved with the effort. Michael Moore has agreed to make a film for Field of Vision, as has House of Cards  creator Beau Willimon. Poitras said she is also in talks with Paul Greengrass, whose background lies in documentary.

 The films shown on Sunday at the festival demonstrate a wide range. Among the standouts are Kirsten Johnson’s The Above, about surveillance blimps in Afghanistan and the US that contrasts meditatively with more benign sky-grazing objects such as balloons and a theme-park ride; Peace in the Valley, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s look at the entanglements of gay-rights advocates and evangelical Christians in an Arkansas resort town; and Iva Radivojevic’s Notes From the Border, a fly-on-the-wall piece about Syrian refugees bound for Greece shot just a few weeks ago.

 By offering movies that are shorter and timelier than the traditional look-back documentary, Field of Vision hopes in some case to offer takes on the news.

 “We want to play in the corner where journalism and documentary overlap,” said Schnack, “but I still think we’re documentary.”

 Cook, who ran the Canadian non-fiction film festival Hot Docs before coming to Field of Vision, said she sees an emphasis on aesthetic concerns as a distinguishing factor.

 “We want to put a focus on an event that’s different, and to do so with a cinematic point of view,” she said.

 For their part, filmmakers say the platform gives them a chance to inject ideas into debates that are still taking place or even make use of previously shot material. Johnson’s The Above, for instance, was carved out of another film she had been working on. “If you have access to the footage, it can be very liberating to see what can be unleashed in this way,” she said.

 Though principals say there is no political agenda, Field of Vision will follow the Intercept’s mandate of “adversarial journalism”, and in the interview, Poitras spoke of a watchdog mission.

 Cook pointed to Poitras’ own work, which was given a boost when video she released of Snowden as a short went viral in 2013, indirectly creating awareness for her and her eventual film. Similar pieces, from Poitras and others, might live on Field of Vision in the future and help draw eyeballs.

 Among the work shown at the New York festival was excerpts of Asylum, Poitras’ new piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that she began shooting before her Snowden film. Three of 13 planned segments were screened; in one, Assange can be seen in a hotel room fixing up a disguise before he goes on the run, much in the manner of Snowden in Citizenfour. (It is not yet clear if Asylum will be made available on Field of Vision.)

 It has been a whirlwind for Poitras.

 The filmmaker has moved back to New York from Berlin, and she has even worked on an upcoming installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art as she cuts the Assange film and runs Field of Vision.

 “Non-fiction films can tell stories that are expansive but also rigorous,” she said.

 “We want to respond to news events,” she added, “but not in the typical media scrum.”

Los Angeles Times