Growing up in an affluent suburb of Boston, Poitras had an early obsession with art and cooking. She went on to work as a sous-chef in prominent French restaurants across San Francisco, but she also gravitated toward experimental, avant-garde films – a passion she explored during her time at the San Francisco Art Institute. Subsequently, she moved to New York to pursue Political Theory and Media Studies at the New School.
At 35, Poitras made her feature directorial début with Flag Wars in collaboration with filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant. Flag Wars follows the conflicts that arise when white, gay professionals move to an African-American neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. It was a work that garnered both the documentary and Ms. Poitras herself critical acclaim. But it was the extensive time spent filming these people in their rawest moments of uncertainty that truly provoked her fondness for real-time event filmmaking.
During the eight months Poitras spent filming the war in Iraq between 2004 and 2005, she produced two installments of her post-9/11 trilogy, which were subsequently considered two of the most impactful documentaries to date. Part one, My Country My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and narrated the war from the point of view of an Iraqi doctor, Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh.
Part two, The Oath, focused on the stories of Salim Ahmed Hamdan and Abu Jandal, both former aides to Osama bin Laden. Hamdan, who worked as bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan, was later tried in the U.S. military tribunals and ended up as a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay. Jandal worked as a bodyguard to bin Laden for four years before becoming a taxi driver in Yemen.
Poitras’ presence in the Iraq war placed her on a U.S. government terrorism-related watch list from 2006 to 2012. As a result, she was detained, interrogated, and searched numerous times at the U.S. border while traveling internationally. In 2012, Poitras relocated to Berlin where she felt less compromised. In 2015, she sued the U.S. federal government for confiscating the notes she took during her various detentions at airports, and retrieved over 800 pages of her personal journals. She subsequently learned that she was the subject of an investigation on charges of conspiracy by a secret grand jury convened in 2007.
Poitras’s most thrilling directing experience came in January 2013, when she received the first encrypted email from Edward Snowden, a former employee of the CIA and former contractor of the United States National Security Agency (NSA). An expert in cyber counterintelligence, he had become the world’s most wanted fugitive. Poitras traveled to Hong Kong where she was cooped up in a hotel room with Snowden for eight intense days. During that time, she created the third installment of her post-9/11 trilogy, Citizenfour, which reports on the NSA’s mass surveillance based on Snowden’s revelations. Citizenfour won Best Documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards, among other accolades.
Laura Poitras has since co-created an unorthodox visual journalism initiative called Field of Vision, alongside filmmaker AJ Schnack and producer/writer Charlotte Cook. Asylum, a thirteen-episode short created in 2011, is one of the many influential works to come out of Field of Vision; it chronicles the plight of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who published classified information to the public and now seeks asylum in Ecuador.
Laura Poitras has received several high honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship (often called the “Genius Grant”), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fellowship and Advisory post at the Sundance Institute Documentary Labs. Her dedication to art, filmmaking, and journalism will undoubtedly continue to enlighten the otherwise concealed stories of important figures and events that deserve the spotlight.