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Laura Poitras Is Creating a Magnum for Digital Documentarians

Fabrice Coffrini/Getty

The scene could have come straight out of a James Bond film. A wan cyberwarrior, a spy for the surveillance era, is on the phone with a flustered lawyer from the U.S. State Department. “The key has been disclosed in violation of our agreements by a mainstream media organization,” the keyboard-commander says curtly.

“So the key is out there,” the lawyer guesses.

“That’s correct. What we want the State Department to do is to step up its warning procedures, which it was engaged in earlier in the year, to State Department sources that are mentioned in the cables,” the pale man says. 

Because this is a documentary, the man of mystery is, of course, Julian Assange, one of the more important heads of the anti-surveillance state. The scene is taken from footage shot as WikiLeaks manages the publishing of a cache of classified State Department diplomatic cables in 2011. 

The watchful camera that captures Assange’s self-importance—and the white-knuckle impatience with which he deals with the bumbling lawyer—belongs to filmmaker Laura Poitras, who reprises her own starring role in the privacy and surveillance debate with the new episodic Assange documentary, Asylum, as well as a production project, Field of Vision, that sees independent documentarians around the world investigating concerns close to Poitras’s own practice: surveillance as well as political boundaries, hidden social conflicts, and the layers of urban space. 

Field of Vision made its media debut at this year’s New York Film Festival. Last weekend, I got a look at its initial slate of programming. As a collaboration between Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media and The Intercept—First Look’s digital publication that has provided a home for Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Poitras, along with other colleagues and collaborators—Field of Vision will produce about 50 short-form or episodic nonfiction films a year. Its first season debuted online September 29.

“In 2013, when I started working with Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald to do reporting,” Poitras said during the Film Festival preview, “what I talked about doing is wanting to create a small team of people to do short-form that’s responsive to news.” The initial results are a clear success.

Launched in collaboration with independent filmmaker AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain: About a Son) and Charlotte Cook, who oversaw Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, the project appropriates Silicon Valley parlance familiar from First Look’s highly publicized management issues. It is a “platform,” as its manifesto describes it, rather than just a series or only a production company. “We are committed to provide filmmakers both an outlet for this work as well as the support and the appropriate resources to create these films,” they write. Whether the films will find a mass audience has yet to be seen, though Poitras’s earlier work has worked on a large stage. 

The difference between Poitras’s initiative and an ill-fated venture like Racket (too beautiful to live), however, is that Field of Vision looks like it’s structured to actually work. The films are bite-sized, built to move through digital distribution channels as well as established formats, like film festivals and cable, which have lately proved more hospitable to indie media. 

Field of Vision’s lineup also signals First Look’s commitment to covering the global stories that its principals have partially unveiled. Omidyar, Greenwald, and company continue weaving the threads of Snowden’s leaks into a larger journalistic cloth. The resulting material takes many forms, from articles published on The Intercept to Poitras’s feature-length Snowden documentary CITIZENFOUR. Collaboration is key across this activist-journalist network, as Greenwald and Scahill’s cameos in CITIZENFOUR suggest, but it’s Poitras work that will likely provide Field of Vision’s center.

Which brings us to Asylum, Poitras’s episodic Assange documentary. Asylum’s episodes often resemble outtakes from CITIZENFOUR: Close-ups of Assange’s face dominate, and the camera follows him through claustrophobic interiors as he goes about the small rituals that make up daily life between the moments he’s carrying out his great work—leaking things that very powerful entities do not want leaked.

But Asylum is wrier and more alive to irony than CITIZENFOUR ever managed to be. Assange has a way of skewering himself with self-seriousness. “It was a legal minefield, all about trying to trap us for espionage,” he sneers to WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, after the State Department phone call. Later, he tells the camera, “The risk of inaction is extremely high. Every day you live your life, you lose another day of life.” A true statement, though I’m curious how living in the London Ecuadorian embassy for the past three years might have curtailed Assange’s liveliness.

Given its title, it seems likely that the full Asylum series will follow Assange’s hunt for a country that will take him in after his extremely controversial activities. Ever the action hero, an extended sequence follows the Australian as he dons a disguise and takes to the streets on a motorbike even as Sweden attempts to extradite him for sexual assault charges. The scene would have been heavy-handed were it not for the edgy, dark humor of Poitras’s filmmaking—this is a man attempting to escape himself as much as any foreign government. 

Field of Vision’s other initial shorts display a similar engagement with social and political issues as well as an awareness of innovative documentary filmmaking. “So many times I’m reading a New Yorker article and I’m like, ‘God I wish there was a camera in the room,’” Charlotte Cook said of her project’s aesthetic. The films are more than worthy of the comparison.

In Notes from the Border, Iva Radivojevic presents an elegiac look at refugee crossings in Greece. God Is an Artist is a very funny video-essay by Dustin Guy Defa on creativity, freedom, and decay in Detroit. Heloisa Passos’s Birdie is a poignant portrait of a homeless fruit-seller in Rio de Janeiro, on the edges of the global marketplace. The Above by Kirsten Johnson documents a U.S. surveillance balloon hovering over Kabul, and comes with an unforgettable gut-punch ending. All hover around 10 minutes and their directors tend toward a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, the mumblecore of documentaries, though filtered through pointedly international perspectives.

Field of Vision is the next step for both First Look as a media company—producing distributed activist editorial work—and Poitras as an artist. For her choice of subject, she has likely become the singular first-person witness to the key digital controversies of our time. That Poitras and First Look can work closely through the new initiative should be appreciated; without Omidyar’s aggressive funding, it seems unlikely that this unconventional group of projects would have been produced.   

“Instead of, ‘Is it a feature, is it a short, who do I go to for money, how do I start this process,’ there’s some level of freedom to say, ‘Something is happening and I want to respond,’” Schnack said during NYFF. “I want to be there with my camera, and capture it in a way that only a filmmaker can.” The potential is there to create a kind of Magnum for documentarians of the digital era, at least for as long as the financial support continues.