Laura Poitras spent eight months in Iraq from June of 2004 until February 2005 shooting a feature-length film called My Country, My Country that would welcome her into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as a documentary feature nominee in 2007, and would also put her on a terrorist threat list kept by our country's Department of Homeland Security.
When she returned from Iraq in August of 2006, this is what she encountered: "When I landed in Vienna from Sarajevo they announced that there would be a passport control inspection as we exited the plane. Once I got into the airport, they paged me, telling me to report to the gate. I was
met there by security. They then escorted me out of the terminal, into a van, to the police inspection area to search all my bags (hand-held and carry on). I learned from them that not only am I on a threat list (I already knew this from the last times I'd traveled), but that my threat rating—400—is the highest that the Dept. of Homeland Security gives. They explained that the U.S. measures threat level in “points”—they said that if your score is 300-350 points you get checked closely; 400 is the highest level. After they cleared my bags, I was escorted back to the boarding gate. When I landed at JFK, they announced again on the plane that they were doing a passport control check at the ramp exiting the plane. Two armed INS guards were stationed to meet passengers. They were looking for me. When I handed over my passport, they stopped the inspection and escorted me out of the line to a separate room where they called Homeland Security to get permission for me to enter the country. Then I was escorted to pick up my bags, which were searched again. The security guards at both Vienna and JFK realized how absurd it all was after I explained to them I was a filmmaker who did a film in Baghdad. I showed them the catalogs from the Edinburgh and Sarajevo Film Festivals where I was showing my film, and I gave them all copies of my film on DVD. It was ironic that the Department of Homeland Security considered me a terrorist threat while the U.S. military was inviting me to go to bases and military colleges to show the film to high ranking officers."
I guess she must be touching a nerve.
I've been a fan of Laura's ever since seeing Flag Wars, her first feature doc made with Linda Goode Bryant. Her quiet and respectful demeanor masks a determination and drive to quench her intense need to answer hard questions, and take chances beyond what most people would endure to find the answers. She's chosen to do this through filmmaking, but the bottom line is that she is an active participant in the world, at much risk to her own personal safety. Hers is an important voice in our modern archive on the US invasion of Iraq and the ramifications and fallout our country will experience for that invasion for who knows how long into the future. We talked about all this, and more, one early evening in her spacious loft in New York City where she finds a bit of respite before flinging herself out into the dicey territories she's learned to navigate with stoic grace. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): Making My Country, My Country took you to another level in your career that maybe you anticipated, maybe you didn’t. But you ended up making this amazing, tremendously moving film, virtually by yourself, not even a translator to accompany you while you were shooting in Iraq. That's another level of living, let alone creating art. How'd you get to this place?
Laura Poitras (LP): I have an art background, actually. At the San Francisco Art Institute, I studied more experimental films with people like Ernie Gehr and George Kuchar, both teaching there at the time. I didn’t go there to become a filmmaker; I was actually working as a chef. I did French food for about 10 years, working at very, very fancy places in San Francisco. And the restaurant where I was working at the time went union so my work day went from 14 hours a day to just eight. I had all this free time and I had just moved to San Francisco [from Boston] and didn’t know anyone. I registered for this class at the San Francisco Art Institute to learn about Super 8 filmmaking—this was in the late ‘80s. And my first teacher was Ernie Gehr who is an avant-garde legend, in terms of his structuralist approach to film. The class was kind of mind-blowing for me. Using that camera was a way for me to interpret this new landscape for myself. I picked up this camera and sort of fell in love with it. So when I started shooting and making films, it was using film, Bolex or Super 8. And everything I was watching was made by artist/filmmakers. It wasn’t about delegation of craft; you were the artist and you made your own film—as the cinematographer, the director, the producer, the way you cut it, etc., but, totally non-commercial. The avant-garde or experimental film community is an interesting one because they never try to capitalize on their work; they aren't making anything that could be bought as an object. So people like Gehr or Stan Brakhage or Abigail Child or Peggy Awash were really piecing together things that would never make them art stars even though they were doing really amazing work and continue to do amazing work now. After taking several courses here and there, I basically gave up cooking and started working for a nonprofit media organization.
And then I came to New York for graduate school in social political theory at the New School, so my technical background was filled out by all this social and political theory. I started working as an assistant editor on the Avid system. The transition to doing long-form documentary was doing Flag Wars, which I made in collaboration with Linda Goode Bryant. Both of us had done more experimental work and we had no idea what we were getting into, how much time it would take, which ended up being four years. When we started, the three-chip digital cameras had come on the market and as a filmmaker, someone who shot film and loved the kinds of images that emerged from that process, it was great to discover that the images from these cameras were also beautiful and you could fall in love with these pictures—you can frame an image and you can love it. My motivation was always about capturing something visually, and this aesthetic and the technology convened at the right moment for me—that and cutting non-linearly without it costing a fortune, the new software making it possible to work on a home computer.
SIM: Did you find funding for that project?
LP: We pitched this idea about a community in transition at a pitch forum in San Francisco and so it was on the radar and got tracked—HBO knew about it, as well as PBS, and other commissioning editors. And then we went to Ohio to make it thinking we’d be there a couple of months. We hired crew for the first shoot, including Arthur Jafa, who’s an amazing DP and for sound, we hired Steve Bognar, who was also filming A Lion in the House. He was already about 400 hours into that epic project when we met him in ’99. So they shot with us the first week and then it became apparent very quickly that we were going to be there a long time. So I started doing the camera work and Linda and I just sort of camped out and lived there. The whole experience of doing this film and collaborating with another filmmaker was an amazing teacher, an incredible gift—the lessons in storytelling, human nature. You go in with one idea and then you’re confronted with something that’s so much more complicated, so much more exquisite, so much more heart-breaking. You have to re-think everything.
SIM: Do you remember a specific moment where you had some kind of revelation of sorts, where you felt that unexpected inner expansion? What did that moment consist of?
LP: All those moments consist of knowing at that moment that you’re in the right place at the right time, that certain magic that happens, particularly in verite filmmaking, where you recognize that whatever is happening is extraordinary. You just hold your breath and try to capture it. Those moments really teach you about story, human drama. The “issue” you’re trying to highlight, in a weird way, becomes irrelevant. When you’re making present-tense verite films, the action unfolding as it happens, it becomes all about the choices people make in those circumstances, at those crisis moments, and again capturing that human drama right there. There was one scene we were filming with Linda Mitchell [a life-long resident of the Ohio neighborhood, unable to keep her house in good repair] and the judge says, “Okay, let’s go out and look at your house. Let’s go inspect it.” And we knew that her house was not up to code and that this could get her thrown out of her home. And the judge looked at us and said, “Well, you wanted to see me do a house inspection; let’s go.” As filmmakers, we knew this could be awful for our subject. Luckily, the judge stayed outside of the house because if he’d gone in, she would have been slapped with serious code violations, which would probably have gotten her evicted. It was a heart-stopping moment where you wonder if you’ll need to put down your camera and become a full participant in what’s happening, possibly having to be a part of some kind of intervention. These projects are so humbling; they teach you so much.
To get back to your question about funding: yes, we had some right off the bat, but not that much. We went into debt. And then eventually about $400,000 came through from ITVS and other state grants, ITVS being the biggest funder. But we had to apply, of course, six times to get that funding.
SIM: That sounds about right—I think six or seven go-rounds is about average.
LP: We were continuing to work through that time. It needed that much time to unfold. To answer your earlier question about the transformation for me: I had come out of this very experimental background and I really felt like I would spend my career making small, essay-type films. I’m a pretty shy person; it’s not that comfortable for me to enter into people’s lives and it never occurred to me that I could do this kind of documentary where you’re really following someone’s journey very closely. I learned the magic of that during this film. Now, filming people is actually the thing that I live for. There is a kind of magic that someone like [Al] Maysles talks about where there’s just this incredible connection with your subjects and something profound is happening, a palpable human drama unfolding. That feeling is the compass for everything I do now. And when I get that feeling of knowing that that kind of moment is happening—and it can be something as simple as someone making tea or as frightening as a judge coming to inspect a house and maybe getting evicted—there’s a definite pulse and you feel it. And that was something I discovered, really stumbled into, making Flag Wars. But it’s absolutely about that connection with people and capturing those moments on camera that guides my work, quite different from composing something beautiful in a more detached way. That was a transformative lesson for me.
SIM: Do you feel like a different person when you are in those moments?
LP: Yes. It’s completely draining; it’s something from which I need to recover afterwards. This empathetic connection transcends ego; it’s about being present. I think a lot of us live our lives never really feeling that immediacy of being in the moment. You do shoot a lot of stuff that doesn’t have that quality, of course.
SIM: It’s like you’re the conduit for what’s going on, the translator, and you don’t really realize, necessarily, how much is happening, how impactful that might be. The whole notion of being a shy person or being somewhat reticent to step into something is negated, because you’re being welcomed, not just being allowed to be where you are, but an implicit part of what’s going on. Being there with your camera, capturing the moment, somehow enhances the reality of what’s going on. That, to me, is creating art and then doing something with that, interpreting, creating story, creating a piece that has a life of its own. That may be totally separate from your own journey, your own experience of making the film.
When you’re in your editing process, what kind of relationship do you have to the footage that may be different from the relationship you had to your subjects while you were filming them?
LP: I think you have to sever the relationship with your subjects when editing. Ultimately, it comes down to what you have, what you can tell. How you sever it and how long that takes depends on the circumstances and the timing—when the shooting ends and you can step back and see things a bit more objectively. I'm not saying you lose the relationship to the people you filmed, but that the experience of the filming and the journey you go on with your subjects is different from the story you ultimately tell. Sometimes this is hard to separate. It’s an interesting process, because, at some point in the editing, your relationship becomes one with the footage rather than the people. It’s a weird shift, but to tell the story, you need to do it. But there is continuity between the shooting and the cutting. That pulse that I feel when I’m shooting transfers to this process and I trust that completely; I know it’s right. And it’s usually right when I go to cut, even though the aspect ratios can be huge in terms of the amount of footage you shoot and what you, ultimately, use in the final cut. But there’s continuity in what you experience in the field and what you pull out in the cutting room. I was reading an interview with Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, directors of Trouble the Water, and they were saying that you do want to capture that relationship of what you, as the filmmaker, witness in the field with your subjects—what moves you then should move you in the editing room, one hopes. Sometimes you don’t get that. You have these amazing back stories, but it’s not in the footage, somehow.
It’s a big subject. From my experience making a film in Iraq, there were lots of situations that didn't end up in the film that were very, very heavy. Now, my relationship is more with the footage, but I also think it’s a kind of denial or repression.
SIM: I’m not sure what that means.
LP: For instance, in My Country, My Country, I don’t appear in the film. That was very intentional. It would have been fairly easy to do a film about an imperiled reporter and that would have had its own drama. And it also would have completely overshadowed the film I wanted to make which was a film about Iraqis and how they experienced the war.
SIM: Was that a decision made while you were there and shooting or before you left for Iraq?
LP: It was a decision that was in alignment with the genre of films to which I respond. I don’t respond as much to personal films. Some people can do it extraordinarily well. I like to be removed from the drama of the characters—it’s their story, not mine. I wanted the pure perspective of the Iraqis. Also, politically, it would have been problematic to talk about the danger I faced in these situations.
SIM: It would have been a very different film.
LP: Yeah. Dealing with the experience of spending a certain amount of time risking my life and choosing not to foreground that was a very conscious choice.
SIM: Yet your presence is quite explicit, at least to me it was. At certain key moments I did very much realize there was a human being recording what was going on, behind this camera that’s capturing; these people are actively engaged with that person behind the camera. That’s palpable. The fact that we never see or hear you, I think only intensifies that presence even more in a weird way.
LP: The filmmaker is present always—the choices you make in the shooting, in the editing, the way you frame things are very personal choices. There was a much more important story unfolding than my own circumstances.
SIM: How did you find yourself there? How did you get there? Talk about the logistics of how that was possible.
LP: We were cutting Flag Wars on 9/11. I was a little bit late to work that morning, didn’t have the TV on or anything. We were editing at Linda’s place uptown. So I left the house. This was after the planes had hit the buildings. I had no idea it had happened. I noticed all the helicopters. A homeless guy came up to me and told me that the world was ending. And I thought, “Okay, it’s a strange day.” I get up there and the TV’s on and my first thought was that everything’s changed. Everything.
We finished the film and during this time the build-up to the Iraq war was going on. And I kept asking the question, “What are we doing? What is this country doing?” I had a real sense of the world shifting and a sense of dire despair. It was in that context of the war starting and the stakes getting higher and higher—I don’t know; I just felt strongly that it needed to be documented.
There was an article by George Packer that was the trigger for the film. [War After the War, November 2003, New Yorker Magazine]. He captured the tragedy of it. His piece was incredibly moving and, in a sense, cathartic. There was all this debate and polarization, but he was grappling with what was going on, this history, in an expressive and complicated way. His writing says something not just politically, but artistically, emotionally, struggling to express something human and personal. And I, in turn, was motivated by a desire to do the same thing about this tragic war.
SIM: But really jumping into the fray and actually going in-country is a gigantic leap. There are many people, many artists, many filmmakers, journalists, who might be in that same space you were. But you got yourself over there with your camera searching for a story to tell. You don’t really strike me as a person that reacts in a knee-jerk fashion, but I think the decision to do that was pretty matter-of-fact on your part once you decided that that was what you were going to do. Once you were on the ground, what struck you the most about the reality of being there and how much personal risk being there meant?
LP: Before I went to Iraq, I did this week-long “hostile environment” training course that NGO workers and journalists usually do for insurance reasons before going into conflict zones. You go there and they treat you badly for a week. You learn how to stop people from bleeding out, how to spot land mines, how to tell the difference between a rocket and a mortar attack and what direction it’s coming from. They kidnap you. The second day, they jump the bus and throw a hood over your head and march you around; you can’t breathe. And I knew these were people who weren’t really going to hurt me but it still was really not fun. You really don’t ever want to be in that situation.
The first week I’m in Iraq, we get mortared and I get thrown under a car with some military guy on top of me. After that I went to film a press conference where Paul Bremer was giving a goodbye address to the Iraqi city council because he was leaving. I set up a tripod, which was the first and last time I took out my tripod in Iraq. We were told we needed to leave the room so they could bring in bomb-sniffing dogs before the conference. I was still pretty shaken up from the mortar incident and Paul Bremer’s about to leave and they’re bringing in the bomb-sniffing team with the dogs. My camera’s mounted on the tripod and I had my headphones on. I walked away from the camera with the headphones on and the entire camera fell over. I’d been there for less than a week and I’m already a wreck and I’ve just busted my camera, right? So I didn’t actually end up filming that event. It was bad. I felt very alone.
SIM: How did you get over there in the first place? Did you go as a journalist, a filmmaker? Whose permission did you need to have?
LP: First, I met with a bunch of journalists here, including Packer and asked for some advice. Someone from CNN told me that the military was doing these embeds and they told me I should contact them. And I was very interested in the contradictions inherent in that—how do you occupy a nation and talk about democracy in the same breath? That’s actually what I thought the original story was going to be based upon. I called a producer for a prominent documentary filmmaker who had requested access to go into Iraq. They were denied. I asked them to tell me to whom they spoke and what they were told and asked for their contact person.
I emailed the Pentagon and said that I was a filmmaker wanting to document the nation-building project in Iraq. Someone wrote right back and said, okay, this is the person you need to talk to. So I wrote that person and they wrote back—it ended up being a long series of conversations and I sent them Flag Wars to view. They, ultimately, gave me access to go. It was just a two-page agreement that basically said I had all editorial control; if I got hurt, they weren’t responsible for any of those expenses and they wanted to see the film before it was finished to make sure nothing classified was being revealed.
SIM: And that was it?
LP: I’ve received PBS contracts that are, like, 50 pages long. The US military sent me a two-page form to fill out. When I got the ITVS grant, they wanted to see that contract I had with the military. They were a bit taken aback, too, at how brief and simple it was! They weren’t going to manage me or oversee me, in any way, and, ultimately, it was a very transparent relationship. They didn’t want to create the impression that they were going to censor anything. So I had the access that I needed.
SIM: Were you surprised at how easy it was?
LP: Well, I think I had this idea of the military, viewing it as archaic, monolithic. What I learned was something very different. The government, the Administration is that way; but the military is a bit of a different animal. They were open to a level of transparency that was kind of shocking to me. Once I got to Iraq, there were people from the military who gave me enormous assistance--some even put their careers on the line by helping me. I didn't expect that. I flew a commercial flight to Kuwait and flew the rest of the way on a military flight into Baghdad. At that point, the country was under occupation; it wasn’t a sovereign country which meant no visas and it also meant that it didn’t really exist as a country, so no stamp on my passport or anything else to indicate that I had ever entered or exited Iraq. When I arrived, I went about the business of trying to find a story that I wanted to tell, characters to follow.
I was quickly very worried. What I was worried about was telling a story from an American perspective, or, solely, from that perspective. That was very problematic for me because of how they were living, the sequestered environment, how Americans and Iraqis weren’t really interacting or how the Iraqis were being perceived. Then I went to Abu Ghraib. I had been there for about three weeks and they were doing a trip to the prison for an inspection that was being done by Iraqis. This was a month after the infamous photographs were made public. I got permission to document this inspection. That’s where I met Dr. Riyadh [pictured above] and that changed everything.
When I decided to go to Iraq, it was about six months into the occupation and the security situation was getting worse but hadn’t really reached the intensity that it would. But I was reading the paper regularly and could see it was getting worse and worse. Then, there was the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos in the paper. I had just gotten permission to go. Nicholas Berg had just been beheaded right before I was to get on a plane. Originally, I thought that I really didn’t want to be in Baghdad; the city was too risky. I wanted to be in a place where I’d be able to film Iraqis and the security in Baghdad seemed so bad. But when I got there, I knew Baghdad was the place I needed to be; that’s where I was going to find my story. So there was this constant questioning about what kind of danger I was willing to accept. I think that happens to people when they go into these sorts of situations. You’re constantly re-drawing that line of what kind of situation you’re willing to put yourself into. The reality of being there changes that.
SIM: It’s no longer an abstract concept. You can see and feel what it’s like.
LP: You also lose perspective of the danger.
SIM: People are living life. Life, as it does everywhere else, is going on, despite the circumstances.
LP: The possibility that I could get killed was in my mind before I was even there. When I went to the airport, I was with my producer, Jocelyn [Glatzer]. She was sending me off. And I remember asking her, “Is this worth it?” The worst moments were when I had doubt, or lack of belief in the film. Not so much that it was worth documenting, but was I going to be able to get it? I was freaked out when I wasn’t getting the story; I felt I was failing. Those were the moments I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing there. It was insane. But when I felt solidly grounded in what I felt I was going to be able to document and express, then my belief became stronger than the fear.
SIM: How long did it take you to shoot the whole thing? Was it all in one go, were there several trips?
LP: It was eight months total and I left once in the middle of shooting. To leave was good, on the one hand, because that gave me an opportunity to assess the footage. But, emotionally, it was crazy-making.
LP: Because everyone wanted to know what it was like. There are no words; you cannot describe it. Everyone wants a piece of you, to get their hooks in and I found it completely alienating. I tried to put words to it, but the words felt completely empty. I also felt like I just could not connect with anyone, in any way. The realities are so opposed to one another. I couldn’t reconcile them. I know reporters do go in and out and they figure out how to deal with all that. But it was incredibly painful for me. Emotionally, I was still there, but I was physically here.
SIM: And you knew you were going back. Was your reason for leaving because you felt you needed to disengage for a minute or was it for more practical purposes?
LP: Part of it was practical. Linda and I got nominated for an Emmy for Flag Wars. So I wanted to be part of all that, which was kind of insane [laughs], going from a war zone to the Emmys, which was kind of ridiculous. We also had a funding deadline for My Country, My Country. The original idea was that I would be going in and out of the country. But we were screening the project [My Country] as part of the No Borders program at the IFP Market, so I wanted to edit some footage for funding reasons. While I was away, my producer and editor had cut some footage together and I hated it! [laughs] It was good because it forced me to really try and explain how it feels. What they had cut was kind of a fast cut [in terms of pacing]. There was nothing wrong with it, but the mood was all wrong for the film I was making. But it was good to see it, because it made me realize that I needed to spend some time with the footage. I cut something that was still miles away from the final film, but for right or for wrong, made me feel like I was expressing something closer to how I was feeling, the experience as I was living it.
I think, in a way, that’s why coming home was hard. There’s a level of daily tragedy in Iraq that’s really hard to comprehend or wrap your mind around.
SIM: What changed for you, philosophically, in terms of your citizenship, your nationality? Can you articulate that at all?
LP: I don’t know. You’re here and you walk down the street and there’s no indication we’re at war. It didn’t look like it to me, you know? The reality of what people are having to grapple with in Iraq—there’s no sense of that being shared here. There’s nothing. It’s disturbing.
I’m working on this new project and I have a translator. He used to be a doctor in Iraq and he’s done some translation with George Packer and other folks. He told me this story of some Americans rescuing dogs, pets, from Iraq. We were talking about making a film about this because as Iraqis are being killed, we’re really not doing much. But we’re going in and finding these dogs and getting special permission to rescue them and bring them here. There is something so wrong about that.
SIM: That’s a very American response, to my mind. There was a lot of that with Katrina, too. People struggling and dying with no aid from anyone, but, boy, those animals were being rescued post-haste! Move the bodies out of the way; where are the puppy dogs?! I am a strong animal rights advocate, have been for years, but the priorities, in terms of “helping,” are a bit muzzy. This is how we live here.
LP: Iraqi blood is so cheap.
SIM: Which means?
LP: Murders don't even get reported. Translators are being assassinated. There are rampant kidnappings. Everyone I knew was dealing with death all the time. It doesn’t get reported; it isn't a story.
SIM: How does that make them different from us? Were you self-conscious at all in terms of forming relationships with people whose country we were occupying? You’re there and you’re experiencing the same things they are, but you get to leave any time you choose to. How did that impact those relationships?
LP: I always was very aware that it was my choice to be there. And that it was not their choice to be occupied. Which is very much why I did not want to be the subject of my own film. It was my choice to enter into that level of risk. I had the power and the privilege to say something about this war. When I really started to see the risks that Iraqis were taking, the set of circumstances in which they found themselves, against their will, I would ask myself how I could not do this. When you’re with people whose friends are being shot and the next day they show up to work—how can you then not take risks to document that? You can’t abstractly imagine those circumstances unless you’re seeing and hearing those stories every day. If anything had happened to me, there would have been a search team—my absence would be noted. Yet for these Iraqis involved in local politics, active in their own communities—if something happened to any one of them, it’s nothing. It’s not going to make the papers; no one’s going to care about it outside of Iraq. No one’s going to look for them. That was quickly very obvious.
SIM: What’s interesting to me about My Country, My Country is that, as a viewer, I felt some under-layer of emotion that’s pretty constant throughout the film. For me, that’s what sets it apart from other Iraq stories, other stories of war. And that has everything to do with who shot it, who told that story. There’s so much more going on than just documentation of a situation. It’s a really indefinable thing—a bit of a mystery but you’re choked up, nonetheless, because you feel the immediacy of what it must be like. It’s bearing witness—I don’t know; maybe it’s me, but when someone does that—bears witness—it just moves me on a very deep level.
LP: You’re the conduit for holding those emotions; the image can hold this pain.
SIM: That’s extraordinary to be able to do that. I’m sure you’re experiencing this with your new project—the idea that you can do this; that it’s possible for you to be the one capturing it and sharing that story with the rest of us. Our media, to my mind, is really good at creating distance, that great divide between “them” and “us.” With your work, I guess the hope is to try and bridge that. The most successful films about all this—war and occupation and our responsibility and culpability—traverse that territory that’s in between something sensationalized or commercialized, something that’s slickly produced, objectified. Your film doesn’t sucker punch, in any way, which is a facile way to get a reaction from an audience. It’s complicated. You can’t just walk away with conclusions about anything. There are, indeed, even more questions. Are you crafting it consciously that way? My assumption is that you are.
LP: At one point, the editor, Erez Laufer, asked if we could gather some archival footage of car bombs. He thought we needed to see more violence. I totally agreed about the importance of showing that. There are body counts every day; explosions are a daily occurrence. When we pulled that archival footage and edited it in, it just didn’t work. It didn't work because of the failure of representation. In the US, we read that a car bomb has gone off and there are 200 people dead in Baghdad on any given day. And then we go and order a grandé latte. It doesn’t penetrate. It doesn’t reach us at a point where we absorb it or feel it. The repeated images of the aftermath of bombs bounce off us. We take them in and then reject them. So the question is, how can you represent something then, that’s unrepresentable, that's beyond representation?
SIM: How do you?
LP: I have to be guided by my emotions. If I feel that something is moving me, then I have to trust that. When you see something and you don’t feel anything, then you have a problem and you have to solve that problem. It’s not that that footage cannot move people, but how can it be expressed in a way that it will? That’s the key. The body counts represent lives lost, not as examples of the failure of the American government, but as fathers, brothers, someone’s child. It needs to be communicated as your loss too, not just someone else's. That is a huge challenge and navigating it successfully means you have to constantly check in with your own feelings, your own emotions. So, ultimately, we found that trying to use this archival footage in juxtaposition to the verité footage of an intimate, family story didn’t resonate. Which isn’t to say that it can't be done; it just didn't work in this film. The film is full of violence. I’m telling the story of a family whose mosque was bombed; they had a nephew who was kidnapped. They risked their lives to vote. And you feel these things deeply because you’ve come to know them, which is the kind of storytelling in which I’m interested, where you identify with people on a universally emotional level.
SIM: How did they, in turn, identify with you?
LP: I think they trusted that I was going to capture some of their misery and show their situation to other people. I mean, on the one hand, I think they perceived me as an alien from outer space. It’s a very conservative society. Women do not just go off into war zones and show up on your doorstep. Alone. Let’s just say it breaks molds, okay? So there was a good dose of curiosity. Where did she come from and what is she doing here? [laughs] In the end, they trusted this alien that showed up. There was also a kind of camaraderie because they knew the risk I was taking. They could see I was alone and that I was trusting them, too. My only security was the trust I built with Iraqis.
SIM: That’s very powerful in and of itself.
LP: If the neighbors will protect you and take you in, that’s pretty major.
SIM: Which is yet another risk they’re taking.
LP: Of course. The trust went both ways. I was certainly increasing their risk and my life was in their hands.
SIM: Are you experiencing the same thing with the project you’re shooting now? Where are you in this trajectory of storytelling from Iraq, from that region? You’ve put yourself back there in an equally risky situation once again and telling another very personal story. What’s changed this time? What hasn’t? What reverberations from that experience of shooting Dr. Riyadh’s story are playing out this time?
LP: I’m filming in Yemen now and the story’s about Guantánamo, and one particular person who’s imprisoned there. His family’s in Yemen. There are some parallels. There are, certainly, parallels thematically because both are stories about America post 9/11. The new story is about Guantánamo but it's also about America. I’m not making films about the Middle East, per se. I’m making films in the Middle East from Arab perspectives, but they’re stories about America.
SIM: You're going over there to tell the story that's over here. Interesting.
LP: These are films, in particular, about America’s response to 9/11 and what I think will be long-lasting repercussions in the Muslim world. We’ve galvanized millions of people to hate us. And it was completely avoidable. We haven’t even begun to grapple with the lasting implications of the war in Iraq. I think Guantánamo will be the same thing. I’m working again in a society where I’m an outsider. I’m filming in environments where I don’t speak the language and getting translations afterwards. Those are the similarities, but it’s a very different story.
I went to Yemen thinking the focus would be on Guantánamo and wanting to tell the story of someone being released and going back home. I wanted to show America's complicity in what goes on there. But, of course, the story I’m finding is a lot more complicated than that.
SIM: This is more than filmmaking, it seems to me. Does it feel like that to you?
LP: Yeah. Sometimes, I feel the weight of it—it’s really heavy. Not just the subject or the subject matter, but I’m already on a terrorist watch list which I was put on after finishing the film in Iraq; I’m sure I’m under surveillance by our government.
I want to do a video installation when I finish these films. When you make a documentary, you shoot huge amounts of footage and then cut scenes and shift stuff around in service to the story you’re telling. With the installation, I want to take people on a journey. When I went to Abu Ghraib, I filmed for two hours. In the end, I cut a three-minute scene, so the installation will allow the viewer to spend more time in these places. It's a contribution to the growing archive.
SIM: A very vital one. You’ve got to be one of only a handful of people that has this kind of access.
LP: I feel like I fall between the cracks with the work I’m doing now because it’s similar to some of the work done by print journalists, such as New Yorker authors, like Packer’s work, Lawrence Wright’s. They are grappling with these contemporary issues. I feel like I’m doing something similar on film. What I do is different from Frontline, even though the work they do is extremely important. What I’m filming is more like a primary document. It’s not people on the outside talking about policy choices or something along those lines, but the thing itself.
SIM: We are intellectualizing and pontificating a lot because we’re not really listening.
LP: The films that really resonate for me capture a human drama as it unfolds. Someone once asked me what drama was. Drama is this [she picks up a plastic honey container and moves it a few inches away to another spot on the table]. It’s movement. It’s not people talking about what they did but it is what they do and the choices they make. I’m bringing these ideas about drama, which are old ones, into these kinds of contemporary forums and finding those stories. Those principles of documentary filmmaking have been around a long time—what makes a good story? It’s finding those compelling characters that are confronting some sort of conflict.
SIM: Those are the types of films we need more of. It’s our filmmakers and our artists who are interpreting and telling the real stories because they are personal and specific. Going back to your experimental roots, what are you envisioning and hoping to do with all this material you’re gathering? You started talking about an installation of some sort.
LP: There’s something about long-form documentary that takes you away from the creative process. The ratio of time you’re actually making something to the time you spend grant-writing, fundraising, traveling, networking—I’d like to increase the time spent on the actual making of things! It takes me back to my days as a chef. When you cook, you have to make something new every day; you have to create the food for people to eat. If you don’t do that, there’s no meal. I want the ratio of making things in my life to be higher. That’s where the idea of creating and making other things with this footage comes to mind. Making the actual film itself is incredibly labor-intensive and much of the labor is not creative. You can lose connection sometimes to the actual material, those times where you’re not really creating, but making it possible to create.
SIM: Do you see yourself shifting to fiction filmmaking at some point?
LP: I think about it a lot. I’ve thought about it as a possibility for the final part of this trilogy. I’m very conflicted about it and it could just be fear that I need to move past. My concern is that I like to work alone. I feel like my strength is my empathy. That could be a liability on a set. I don’t know if I’d be able to stay centered in order to keep my vision intact. I worry that I’d be hindered, in a sense, by the apparatus of a narrative shoot. So, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s the direction I want to go. I find the way Michael Winterbottom works to be really fascinating.
SIM: His films are amazing.
LP: I want to keep exploring ways in which I could do narrative work that has an organic documentary quality to it. It comes back to the magic of the moment I was speaking of before, where you know you’re getting something—the immediacy of that. Shot lists and the careful choreography of a narrative would, perhaps, make me feel unsure of what I was actually getting.
SIM: I’ve heard similar concerns from other filmmakers who shoot verité. Any other way of shooting feels restrictive somehow, contrived—which it is.
LP: But then you see a film like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—now we’re talking! It’s a perfect movie. There was something there that was so magical, a transliteration of consciousness. It demonstrated how one can illustrate consciousness in cinema. If you’re talking in those terms, then yeah, I’d love to attack something like that. That’s extraordinary. But when I think of doing a narrative project, I worry that it would feel dead on arrival. Then again, I didn’t think I was going to make documentaries. I thought I was going to make experimental essay films, so I could find a different life-force in fiction filmmaking that I just can’t imagine at this point.
SIM: Well, that’s where your experimental background may come in handy in a weird way, because you could certainly think up some solutions in that regard, of which there are many if you think about it. It means shifting to a whole different type of filmmaking.
LP: Which I don’t have a problem with. I’m not a purist at all. For me, verité is not about truth, it’s about drama. Diving Bell is just extraordinary because Schnabel is creatively unleashed. Do you know what I mean? And he’s enough of an ego force that he can orchestrate really well--he's obviously very, very talented. It’s amazing what he’s accomplished. I saw a lot of documentaries this year and there has been some really amazing storytelling that’s happening, that expands your brain in terms of what’s possible.
SIM: You say you like to work alone, but if you could work with anybody else, who would that be? Does anyone come to mind, someone you’d like to explore that process with—not even necessarily in the context of a film project?
LP: Although I like to work alone, I also love collaborating, to feed off of other people’s creative visions. For instance, the music for My Country, My Country by Kadhum al Sahir, an amazing composer—working with him was tremendous. I think artists like Bjork or Radiohead would appeal to me, as well—doing a score with people like that would also be amazing—the people who are doing things that are so innovative, so unique, being able to riff off works that those people create is really compelling.
SIM: Let’s talk about the music in My Country, My Country. That aural cue that happens every time he sings that song is just astoundingly moving. In the story you're telling, it’s a character, that voice. I waited for that sound with anticipation, a longing almost. How did that element fold into the film?
LP: Sahir is a very famous Iraqi-born musician and, probably, that country’s most famous singer in the Arab world. They love him in Iraq. He lives in exile now. Basically, I approached him and he agreed to do the music. But I didn’t know what he was going to do; I had no idea. What he did in the recording studio was to write the song and then just sing it. So I left the studio with a theme song and then took it into the editing room and cut it up in different kinds of ways. I wasn’t going to get him to give me a month of his time to compose a film score. But I did want those elements, so I directed him in the studio—can you hum it? Can you do it as a lullaby? I had the song in different ways, different versions and then I could paste those in throughout the film. It’s incredibly emotional because he’s singing about his country.
[“Oh My Country”
by Kadhum Al Sahir
Oh my country, may you have a happy morning.
Reunite everyone; heal your wounds.
I yearn to see you smile some day,
When will sadness set you free?
Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds,
Take them all under your wings.
You are their father; you are their mother,
Stay firm, no matter how your winds gust.
Jesus and Prophet Muhammad said,
Their unity is your weapon.
Love, peace, intellect and construction,
May God in the heavens bless your success, my country.
Oh my beloved Iraq; oh Iraq,
Oh my beloved, oh my beloved, oh my beloved Iraq.]
You can hear the loss, the sense of tragedy. You don’t have to literally understand the words to know the feeling, the thoughts behind the song. I knew that when I heard him singing it. For me, music in film should be an emotional trigger. When you hear it, you experience a rush of emotion about what the film expresses. That’s how I want music to work. I don’t want to be unduly influenced, where the score overrides what’s happening, or tries to raise the emotional pitch of a scene. But also, there are soundtracks where the music can be played and no one would associate that music with that scene or that film experience. There are soundtracks where just a few notes open this reservoir of emotion. It’s a character.
SIM: I talk with a lot of film composers and this is the way they like to work, too—that intuition, that feeling, the emotion, the trust—all of it. To me, that’s really the only way you can talk about music, in a way.
LP: Unfortunately, I think the language for talking about composition for film is very different. It tends to focus on themes for different characters, as if it’s a Broadway musical or something. We harness musicians to do these weird things for movies, but I don’t think they always transcend, they don’t always add a layer like cinematography does. It’s often just in the service of the movie.
SIM: When you watch My Country, My Country now, is there a key moment for you in the film that you always look forward to seeing, that you’re particularly proud of?
LP: There’s a point when it sheds its expositional work and it can fly. At the beginning, you’re establishing characters, place, theme. You feel weighted down with information. Then, there is a point in the film where you could just go. After we know those characters enough, I can take you from a bombing in a kitchen to a gun deal in Kurdistan and get away with it [laughs]. It’s when it flies as a narrative--that's always the most exciting transition.
SIM: So Oscar, that lovely gold statuette, as you know, is a pretty big deal. It's also somewhat controversial for a lot of folks making nonfiction. You’re standing up there at the Academy Awards for this film that you created pretty much on your own. What did that feel like? There are a lot of different things that go on emotionally and psychologically, I would imagine.
LP: I’m someone who has a profound respect for process. Trusting process probably speaks to my experience as a cook, as well as to my experience as a filmmaker. Going into a war zone you have to be present, in the moment. I think if you approach any of these things [awards] as a goal, desiring the end product before you’ve even begun the process, you’re fucked. Particularly in a situation like Iraq, you have to be there for the right reasons. Your life is on the line and so are the lives of the people around you. The right reason is not to make a successful film; the right reason is that you’re trying to express something and trying to honor those people who are trusting you with their lives. It’s a real reality check. Of course, I also want people to see my films; I want them to be successful. But when everyone you know has got their lives on the line, you better be doing things straight. Your intentions have to be clean.
When I came back from Iraq, I believed in the film and I fought hard for a theatrical window and release. Ultimately, everyone supported that, including POV and ITVS [PBS, the broadcaster] and [the distributor] Zeitgeist. Everyone stepped back in terms of what their own ideal scenario would be because they recognized what I put on the line. They all compromised in light of that.
To get nominated was tremendous, sort of mind-boggling, out of body. Out of body, also, because of the circumstances from which the film was created which is the complete opposite of the universe the Academy Awards inhabit. It’s an amazing recognition of your work and I’ve met lots of people I normally wouldn't have because of that nomination. I did sort of wonder the whole time how they even let me in the room; it seemed like they had made a terrible mistake.
SIM: I think for those of us who recognize these projects for what they are, it’s even more exciting, because, you’re right, it is somewhat incongruous to what your experience was in making it and the reason why you made it and the reason why it exists. It’s a Hollywood institution that recognizes excellence across the board but with the documentary category, it’s so much of a crap-shoot, really, a game. We hide ourselves under a bushel.
LP: I knew James Longley [director of Iraq in Fragments, also nominated along with Poitras' film that year]. We were in touch and he was one of the first people I contacted when I started researching the film. He was incredibly generous to me when I was, basically, clueless. He answered this long list of questions I sent about everything—logistics, equipment. I was so naïve. So it was so great that we were both nominated—that was really special, too. I think because our films were on the festival circuit at the same time, there was a sense of competition, that our films were always up against one another. We both made films in Iraq about Iraqis and released them in the same year, so comparisons were inevitable. Most people were making films about Americans.
SIM: He, too, did a solo journey over there. His film is breathtaking.
LP: His production values are incredible, as is his shooting. I have huge respect for his work and his process. I also identify with him and his process. He’s now shooting a project in Iran.
SIM: Do you feel a sense of professional growth? Can you step back and look at your own trajectory? Or is everything still as uncertain as it was when you did your first film?
LP: When I finished My Country, My Country, I was invited to go speak at various places. I got to teach some "master classes." I was in the very, very early phases of the Guantánamo film. When you finish a project, you look back and it seems like a linear trajectory—but that's only in hindsight. When you’re actually in the process again, it’s completely non-linear, murky and confusing; you’re full of doubt. But you learn to accept that as the way it is. And it will continue to be the way it is. It’s still really all about trusting in that phase, the phase where you’re going to be filled with doubt and knowing that once you find those anchors, you’ll find your way. It’s confidence in trusting the process. I know what to expect having done this a few times now. Right now, the new film is weighing on me like a ton of bricks.
SIM: In what sense?
LP: It’s a tough one because it’s so sensitive. People are nervous. You’re getting access; then, you’re not. There’s a bit more uncertainty whether or not it’s going to fall apart. There’s anxiety about that. I also don’t know what the shape will be, how it’s all going to come together. It feels like I’m more than halfway through shooting because a lot of the hard stuff is identifying your story. That seems to be there. But there’s still a lot of shooting to do. [She goes speechless for a while.]
But to answer the question—do I feel any more confident? Was that the question? Each project has its own set of quandaries to figure out, its own puzzle pieces. You might have had problems in a certain sense that don’t present themselves in another project and you might have had no problems with something that you have to struggle with now. The hardest part of My Country, My Country wasn’t the shooting. Once I hit the vein, things moved. But distribution and getting it out into the world was really hard. Now, shooting seems harder, a bit more labored getting it there, getting it “in the can.” That’s what I’m grappling with now. All the accomplishments in the world don’t really matter when you’re back out in the field.
SIM: The life of a working artist, a creative person, speaks to that, I’m sure, for most. That’s what keeps people so engaged and so passionate, the striving to “hit that vein,” as you put it. You’re in such a unique time and place and position. I can’t even imagine what that might be like. Your subject matter is so intense.
LP: Personally, I find it riveting. It’s unbelievable that I’m actually allowed to do this. There’s some weird alignment that somehow seems to be making it possible. I can’t wait to show you some footage.
SIM: I’d be honored to see it. Thank you so much, Laura.