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From the garden terrace of a sixth-floor walkup on a quiet Berlin street, there was a clear view to the TV Tower, in Alexanderplatz. The tower, completed by the East Germans in 1969, once served as the biggest symbol of a regime that maintained its power by spying relentlessly on its citizens. It’s now a piece of harmless Cold War kitsch—a soaring concrete column with a shiny top resembling a disco ball. On the front door of the apartment somebody had affixed a sticker that mimicked the visual style of the “Hope” campaign poster for Barack Obama, with the words “Ein Bett für Snowden” (“A Bed for Snowden”) next to the face of the world’s most famous fugitive. The sticker was part of a movement advocating that Edward Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia, be given political asylum in Germany. The apartment’s interior had been turned into a film studio, where Laura Poitras—the maker of documentaries who, last year, helped Snowden leak documents exposing the fact that the National Security Agency collects huge amounts of data on United States citizens—was in the final days of a three-year project about surveillance in America.
Poitras was the first person to learn of Snowden’s trove of files, in early 2013, and for months it remained their secret. From the beginning, the language of their correspondence was heightened. Snowden wrote to Poitras, “You asked why I chose you. I didn’t. You chose yourself.” He was referring to films of hers that were critical of the war on terror—in particular, a short piece on an N.S.A. whistle-blower named William Binney. That June, they met in a hotel in Hong Kong, and Poitras made and released a twelve-minute video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world. Since then, he has given numerous interviews, and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, Poitras’s reporting partner on the story, has published a book. But Poitras, guarding her privacy, has said very little while she has finished work on her film. Anticipation kept building, and it was global news when the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced that it would present the première, on October 10th. (A wider release follows, on October 24th.)
Poitras is fifty years old, with brown eyes that habitually have a look of alarm, as if she were staring at something from which she wanted to escape. Her features—strong nose; sensitive mouth; a long wave of dark hair, parted in the middle—bring to mind a Victorian artist, a woman of character whose intensity is kept under wraps. Inside the studio, the atmosphere was discreet and tense: thoughts were conveyed in shorthand, words were swallowed, sentences trailed off. This is Poitras’s style, and her small team of collaborators followed her lead. The group was international, and included an American co-producer, Katy Scoggin; a German producer, Dirk Wilutzky; and his French-American wife, Mathilde Bonnefoy, who served as Poitras’s editor. They worked on computers with high levels of encryption, memorized extremely long passwords that were frequently changed, left their phones outside, and shut the windows in rooms where sensitive conversations took place. They were compressing ten weeks of work into less than a month, in time for the première.