Edward Snowden director moves on to more controversy

Filmmaker focuses on dissident artist after acclaim of Snowden project

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 5:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 5:12am

The director of the Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden is back on Chinese soil to work on another secret project with a controversial figure - but it's got nothing to do with the American whistle-blower.

Instead, Laura Poitras has just spent several days filming an art project with dissident artist Ai Weiwei in Beijing.

"It was great to meet him. I really admire his work and his courage," Poitras said on Friday, after the premiere of Citizenfour in Hong Kong.

It's the first time Poitras has returned to the city since June 2013 when she met Snowden, the former US government contractor who leaked top-secret documents to the press and exposed the clandestine collection of metadata as well as the US hacking of mainland Chinese and Hong Kong targets.

The leaks sparked a global debate on privacy and the surveillance overreach of the US government and its allies.

Before coming to Hong Kong, Poitras spent five days in Beijing filming Ai - who is banned from leaving the mainland - as he collaborated with hacker and computer security expert Jacob Appelbaum as part of an art show called Seven on Seven, which will be shown on May 2 at the New Museum in New York.

On Citizenfour, Poitras recalled editing the first cut of the now-famous 12-minute clip where Snowden reveals his identity. "I felt the weight of it and had to lie down and process and contemplate how this was obviously going to change the life of Snowden forever," she said.

"It was an enormous burden ... things could have turned out much worse. He had made the decision to come forward but [reporter] Glenn [Greenwald] and I facilitated that. If he had been arrested ..."

When Poitras first learned that Snowden wanted to meet in Hong Kong, she was taken aback. "I was really surprised and the temperature just went up. When he told me, I thought immediately that he would seek political asylum," she said.

Snowden is now living in Moscow where he was granted political asylum.

Poitras described Snowden, as a "deep thinker".

"He's unique in the sense that he technologically understands how this works and what he's seen he feels is a real threat to democracy," she said..

"It's like if you were a scientist and you saw climate change, you would want to warn people; it's similar to what he saw and felt - that this is a danger and he wants to warn people."

Poitras described Hong Kong as a key character in the film. "It doesn't get any more cinematic than this city and I love the combination of modern and traditional," she said.

Her latest trip to Hong Kong is her last big media tour for the film as she hopes to move onto other projects. "I don't want to be working on one project for too long," she said..

"I want to do new work and not be talking about an old work, but I really felt it was important to come to Hong Kong; it's a sense of closure."

Her next film focuses on Wikileaks and she is also working on an art show that opens next year at New York's Whitney Museum that will cover post-September 11 themes, similar to her films.

Asked if she hoped US President Barack Obama had seen Citizenfour, she replied: "I hope his daughters have seen the film."