Laura Poitras and the Gendering of Post-9/11 Surveillance

by Lainey Immell Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 17 minutes (4197 words)

Citizenfour (Image source, Anchor Bay)

In the twenty-first century, the world has never been more connected. The public has access to constant communication, instant acquisition of information, and efficiency when it comes to technological advancements in the home. With all this digital innovation and dissemination into the private lives of the public also comes constant surveillance. Under the guise of protection and security, both government and private institutions have unparalleled access to citizens' private lives. This voyeurism isn't democratic in who it targets either. The gendering of power structures already in existence in this country have allowed for patriarchal, heteronormative biases to exist when looking through the lens of institutionalized surveillance. This puts marginalized groups and those outside of the social "norm" at risk of being hyper-visible and thus targets for media and law enforcement. This surveillance has also extended outside of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 to target possible threats and citizens of other nations. When surveillance is associated with war and violence on the global scale in this way, it takes on a stereotypical masculine, and thus patriarchal persona. There are some figures trying to combat this phenomenon. Whistleblowers, activists, and artists alike risk their own safety and privacy to guarantee others those rights, one of these people being Laura Poitras. Laura Poitras's filmic works seek to recognize, expose, subvert, and combat the patriarchal gaze within surveillance, and usher in a new democratized and intersectional feminist way of viewing in a world that is constantly looking back on itself.

Laura Poitras is an American documentary filmmaker and video installation artist from Boston, Massachusetts. Her production company, Praxis Films, is based out of New York and Berlin. Her films center around themes of surveillance, free speech, and voyeurism largely because of her own personal experience with United States surveillance. In 2006, Poitras was put on a terrorist watchlist because of her proximity to an attack on United States military troops while filming in Iraq in 2004. Because of this, she has been interrogated over three dozen times at the U.S. border. After successfully suing the United States government in 2015, she gained the rights to her own FBI files. These proved that not only was she being interrogated at the border, but she was also being watched constantly, her company's website stating that, "the FBI conducted physical and digital surveillance of her, sent FBI agents to her film screenings, subpoenaed her private communications, and conducted a classified intelligence investigation" (Praxis Films). After learning all of this, Laura Poitras has dedicated much of her work to exposing the government's secrecy and voyeurism to the American public, often in partnership with future high profile whistleblowers and dissenters of the United States government.

The system Poitras is speaking out against through her work is the power structure within the U.S.'s post-9/11 surveillance culture. Ever since the passing of the Patriot Act in 2001, the United States has become a "superpanopticon," a term referencing Foucault's panoptic surveillance model (Van der Meulen 6). The power of this model comes from those within an institution proactively altering their behavior as if they are being watched, even if they aren't actually under constant supervision. By superpanopticon, theorists are arguing that society as a whole is so used to the idea of being watched that a person may not recognize when their privacy is being invaded, even in their own home. In fact, it is now the social norm to not only open oneself up to be surveilled, but to even offer up information publicly. This idea of participating in one's own surveillance is largely due to the "democratization of surveillance as entertainment" such as social media and internet data collection (Van der Meulen 8). In this power structure, everyone is watched, but some are viewed with a more critical eye. If society wants a demographic to not interfere with their norms, power structures will keep a closer eye on them to ensure they do not act out, thus making them hyper-visible. This affects women, people of color, members of the LGBT+ community, those experiencing poverty, and so much more. As such, the system that watches over them is patriarchal, as it wishes these communities to not threaten the masculine, straight, and white system of order that has been established.

This patriarchal gaze is omnipresent in Laura Poitras's films, with both her form and her content working to both expose and subvert the masculine, patriarchal power structures within our "surveillance society" (Van der Meulen 3). In her short film Terror Contagion (2021), Poitras uses classic voyeuristic style paired with more analytical computer data to alert the viewer to the practice of "watching" while evidence is shared about people being the target of nonconsensual observation by governments using Pegasus, a malware meant for undercover surveillance. The film is in partnership with Forensic Architecture, a company dedicated to researching and then sharing information on events that affect the public around the globe. The film's first shot is from above in Laura Poitras's home office, facing her desk and a window. As the camera pushes forward, the viewer gets glimpses into who she is by looking at the contents of the room. A fly even buzzes across the frame, perfectly hinting at the "fly on the wall" phrase associated with voyeurism. In this film, the audience is the fly in Poitras's office as she and her peers discuss the overreach of Pegasus's power and the company that sells it: NSO Group. The film is being shot as their discoveries are unfolding, making the audience feel even more present as they discover alongside Poitras and her team. As she explains in an interview with Richard Porton, "It's important for me to make films as they're actually happening – both how it serves as a primary document and how it helps to translate these issues into genuinely human terms" (Porton 49). As such, the framing of shots in this film is extremely clinical, but ironically this makes the audience even more responsive to the film's message. Every shot seems to come from a camera on a tripod – the pans and tilts are seamless, and still shots are motionless. This sleek movement paired with almost exclusively high angle shots results in a security-camera feeling coming from the cinematography. This and the fact that the only time we see Poitras's face is when we are viewing a computer screen all helps remind the viewer that they are voyeurs in this situation, but that they are probably being watched too. The final shot of the film is a drone shot of the NYPD's counterterrorism building and courtyard, a choice that directly uses technology associated with the patriarchal way of observing to gaze upon a part of the patriarchal structure itself. By reclaiming this style of filming for herself, Poitras is taking a feminist stance against the patriarchal norm of who gets to surveil who and how it is done.

These formal elements and choices in Laura Poitras's filmmaking style are pervasive throughout her filmography, as her film Citizenfour has proven since its release in 2014. This feature was the third installment in a trilogy by Poitras about post-9/11 American surveillance and the war in Iraq. It is different to its two predecessors (My Country, My Country in 2006 and The Oath in 2010) in that she turns her lens not on Iraq, but homeward. Because of this, the might of the United States government is unleashed upon her. Poitras works to remind the audience of this in her shot composition. The shots of the main subjects in the film -  whistleblower Edward Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald - taken over the interview's eight-day timeline in Hong Kong are close shots, and equal in height to them while seated. As Krista Kauffman references, "Typically, she holds the camera at waist height and looks down at the viewfinder, rather than hiding behind the lens. 'The camera doesn't have to be a barrier,' she believes. 'It's a witness'" (Kauffmann 80). Poitras believes in connecting with her subjects on a deep, human level, and treats the camera and the subject as equals. By removing the power imbalance between the watcher and the watched, subjects are more comfortable on camera and therefore feel safer to share more information. Throughout his time on screen, Snowden is extremely candid and detailed in his storytelling and divulging of classified information. In the hotel room, he sits by a window and calmy recounts his experiences and how he would like this information leaked. Behind him, though, is a mirror, and Poitras has angled her camera so that the back of his head can be seen. This is a reminder that despite his openness and apparent safety in the hotel room, Snowden, much like the rest of the American public, is always being watched.

The editing process for this film was a labor of espionage and encryption, using tactics the government uses against its people as a way to fight back against its powers of surveillance. As Lisa Parks states, Citizenfour is,

"one of the first documentary feature films to be born in digital encryption…once Citizenfour was in production Poitras had to devise elaborate methods for encrypting and  securing all of her footage and materials… Using encryption as both tool and icon, Poitras implicitly suggests that the expository potentials of documentary cinema are increasingly bound up with the carefully coordinated labor of scrambling and descrambling, encrypting and unencrypting" (Parks 15).

Because of the security risks of being caught with not only Snowden's leaked files but also footage of Snowden himself before he was ready to have the information released, Poitras had to have the documentary content constantly encrypted. She also moved to Berlin so that her footage could not be confiscated. This constant hiding and discovery throughout the filming and editing process makes the act of creating Citizenfour a direct threat to the established surveillance society. By working against the elite in power to disseminate information equally to the American public, Poitras is working towards equality of knowledge for all parties against a patriarchal system and is therefore a feminist filmmaker.

In 2016, Laura Poitras unveiled a new addition to her artistic talents: installation art. With the opening of her exhibit Astronoise at the Whitney Museum in New York City, Poitras hailed in a new method of spreading her message through interactive art installations. Astronoise was a four-part exhibit. The first section was O' Say Can You See 1 and O' Say Can You See 2, a pair of short films screened opposite each other, as if they were having a conversation. In the first video, slowed motion footage of people observing the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers is shown, all shot within the first month after the terrorist attack on September 11th. The shots are played alongside an extremely slowed down version of the national anthem, recorded at the New York Yankees Stadium on October 31st, 2001, just over one month after the tragedy. Each image is a close shot of every passerby's face. The slowed footage forces the audience to sit with each person and experience the horror and sadness displayed on the subjects' faces. The rubble is never shown, but it is easy to emotionally connect with the film anyway. There is something intimate about watching each subject have a deeply personal, private reaction to what they are viewing on a large screen fifteen years after the event occurred. The second film alters the message of the first in a drastic way. This short film is a collection of footage from United States military interrogations of two prisoners in Afghanistan. These videos were taken around the same time as the footage in the first film, just months after the 9/11 attacks. The footage is static and recorded on a night vision camera from the corner of each room. This once more brings about the voyeuristic, intrusive tone for the audience as they act again like a fly on the wall. Separately, these two short films have very different moods. Placed parallel each other, though, Laura Poitras posits the American fear of global terror onto United States military operations and power. As Olivia Khoo describes, this military power can be coined as "ontopower," or the power of pre-emption, of controlling what may occur by having constant power over all. (Khoo 404). The post-9/11 war was started because of what countries in the Middle East might've done later against the United States; the prisoners in O' Say Can You See 2 were captured for criminal acts they might've committed. This dramatic overreach of power is in line with patriarchal beliefs about strength and aggression. By placing the horror on American faces against this footage of Afghani people imprisoned by the United States, Laura Poitras is attempting to alert to the American public that they should be more critical of their military's ontopower and the dangers of blind patriotism, thus making these films inherently feminist.

The rest of the Astronoise exhibit follows similar thematic guidelines. The installation that follows these videos is titled Bed Down Location, where visitors lay down on a mattress and watch footage of Middle eastern night skies as drones fly past like shooting stars. This exhibit is meant to evoke sympathy for those who have to sleep knowing deadly weapons observe them and fly above them. It is also supposed to make visitors conscious to how much they might be getting observed on a daily basis. The third section of the exhibit is an installation titled Disposition Matrix, where patrons look through slits in a wall to view the files exposed by Snowden. This is meant to emulate once again the feeling of acting like a voyeur, but this time the subject being spied on is content that Poitras believes is meant to be viewed, but that the government keeps hidden. The final stop in the exhibit is titled November 20, 2004. This section loops the footage from Iraq that caused Laura Poitras to be added to the secret terror watchlist, with her FBI file displayed on the adjacent wall. A final attempt at transparency by the installation, the file shows just how invasive the government has been in its surveillance towards her, as well as how harmless the footage she took that fateful day is. The overall exhibit acts like a meditative walk encouraging the visitor to contemplate on their role in the country's participatory surveillance society. As Olivia Khoo writes, "While spectators are offered an illusion of interactivity, of choice, they are responding to a narrative that has already been curated" (Khoo 403). Even after patrons exit the exhibit, Poitras works to drive her message home. As they leave, visitors are shown footage of themselves lying down on the mattress in Bed Down Location, where they were unknowingly being filmed, as well as the last seen activity of every mobile device that entered the installation space. Poitras's message is clear: even when you think you're in a private space, the structures that are in power will always be watching. Only by dismantling the norm that is constant surveillance and replacing it with true privacy and autonomy to act can patriarchal systems be eliminated.

What Astronoise and all of Poitras's previously mentioned works are doing is recognize, highlight, and subvert patriarchal power structures in order to dismantle them. By using the same techniques as surveillance and espionage equipment in her art, Poitras reclaims agency as a female civilian in exposing the hidden underbelly of this surveillance society. Within cinematography, one element that has consistently been used by Poitras is the drone. While the technology is relatively common on almost every level of video creation, from recreational vlogging to high-budget films, drones started out as a military device for surveillance and violence. By taking to the skies remotely, drones quickly became a symbol of military power for those who wielded it, and a symbol of fear and danger for those who existed beneath them. The drone rests in both a symbolic and a literal sense above the communities that its controller wishes to exact power over, and as such it is a symbol of masculine, patriarchal power structures. Because of all of this, Laura Poitras's use of the drone is a demonstration of the recently coined term "drone feminism" or the acquisition of this previously violent, masculine technology stemming from a singular source of authority and using it for equally distributed, elusive surveillance as an expression of art (Khoo 406). In Terror Contagion, the drone footage at the end of the short film democratizes the use of drones by focusing its lens on the very people who use it for overreaching surveillance. In Citizenfour, footage throughout the construction of an NSA location to intercept American calls is shown to turn the practice of surveillance against those who surveil. Lastly, in Astronoise, drone footage is used to condemn itself by placing those who watch it in the perspective of those who are terrorized by drones' existence. Laura Poitras's use of drones as a method for filming her projects becomes a feminist storytelling practice as she levels the playing field for those who can use surveillance technology and how much agency it offers them.

Laura Poitras has been a forerunner in the art world's investigation into privacy, surveillance, and free speech under government structures of power. In her new film, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), though, Poitras takes her signature voyeuristic visual style to confront these themes in a new way: positioning her lens onto the same communities as those in power do. While this at first glance reads to be a backsliding on her part – why would she surveil those already made hyper-visible in society? – she is doing so with the subjects of the film working as participants in the filmmaking process, thus giving them control into how they are viewed and how their story gets told. The central subject of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is Nan Goldin, a photographer, artist, activist, and recovered opioid addict. All of these titles Goldin awards herself throughout the film, as her life story is woven in between the stories of those fighting for queer rights in the 1970s and 80s, those fighting against opioid addiction, and those fighting for the removal of the Sackler name from all museums – a wealthy family that donates to the art world but also had a leading hand in the dissemination of opioid medication throughout the United States. She is Poitras's first female film subject, and because of this her typical filmmaking style has a similarly impactful, but ultimately different result.

Throughout the film, Laura Poitras uses the lurk and listen technique she employs in all her films after establishing a connection with her subject. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, though, it feels much more personal. Goldin and Poitras relate not only as activists and dissenters, but as female artists. As Poitras said herself at IDFA 2022 in Amsterdam,

 "There are a lot of things about Nan's work that are kind of like coming home, you know? It's different but it actually feels very familiar to work I really love and care about. And it is interesting to see these in dialogue, to see the work next to each other. There are things that are connected, and it's a kind of surrendering to the process. The work that we do, it's always in collaboration with the people that allow us to film" (IDFA).

Because of this connection and collaboration (Nan Goldin was a producer on the film), Laura Poitras is able to tell a story through her film that is placed outside of the patriarchal system of power and gives a voice to those that this system tries to silence. While this patriarchy's surveillance is still visible in the film, the storyline for the most part continues outside of and despite it. When Goldin's team begins to be followed by a private investigator hired by the Sackler family, the audience is given a clear view of how desperately those with authority wish to hold onto these antiquated surveillance and power structures. This aggressive move to keep them invisible is in direct contrast with Poitras's efforts to get their story out and into the mainstream world. They want to be surveilled by her so that they can become visible in this society without being made hyper-visible and wrongly labeled as dangerous, or enemies of the social norm, by those currently in charge.

Formally, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed takes on the idea of surveillance in a different way, using photography as a way to surveil the past. Since Nan Goldin is a photographer, much of the film uses images from her own archive to tell the story. Many of the images are intimate, raunchy, and vibrant, each telling their own story within the bigger picture. Since the pieces of Goldin's life that the audience is viewing were made and chosen by Goldin herself, Poitras's film sheds light on invisible groups and appreciates them instead of making them seem like the "other." This voyeurism is a way to normalize the communities captured by Goldin's camera, especially those a part of the LGBT+ community. Much like Citizenfour, the act of editing the film together using these materials used voyeurism as a way to bring about transparency instead of hyper-visibility. In the 1970s and 80s, the time period where Nan Goldin's story starts, the queer community was facing an age of being denied access to public life because they were a 'threat' to normalcy, specifically sexual normalcy which at the time was considered to be heterosexual. As written in chapter 9 of Expanding the Gaze, titled "The Spectacle of Public Sex(uality)," "For sexually marginalized people and communities, access to public space is perhaps not the most pressing issue; more urgent for us is privacy, that is, the ability to evade 'the gaze of the state and the law'" (Van der Meulen 229). Because of their gender identities and sexualities, members of the LGBT+ community were over surveilled and made hyper-visible by media and law enforcement, meaning they could not exist in public space. This led to public hysteria over gay men in public bathrooms, the AIDS epidemic, and false pedophilic stereotypes. By capturing their true, intimate lives on Nan Goldin's camera and then displaying them alongside modern-day struggles for transparency and visibility for other marginalized groups (namely those suffering from addiction), Laura Poitras is acting as an intersectional feminist using her art form to advocate for and give a voice to those who were denied such support decades ago.

Laura Poitras's films and installations take a democratizing, feminist approach to critiquing and subverting the patriarchal gaze within government surveillance in the United States and across the globe, while also using those same techniques to support and advocate for groups typically targeted by these power structures. If the patriarchy is founded on the way power is divided in society, then it is impossible to look at current surveillance practices and not acknowledge the discriminatory way different groups are monitored throughout, many of them targeted based on gender and sexuality. Xenophobia is also at play in many surveillance practices, and this is directly related to the patriarchal hold that has held our government system together. When the "other" is outlined in society, it is easy to make them hyper-visible to the public and thus a useful target for villianization. Laura Poitras uses the United States government's methods of surveilling and voyeuristic practices in her own filmmaking style to expose their secrets and turn the lens on those who work in the shadows. In doing so, she is working against patriarchal "norms" and is using her platform as a filmmaker to be an important intersectional feminist voice.


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Laura Poitras and the Gendering of Post-9/11 Surveillance

Laine Immell is a documentary filmmaker and writer currently focusing on how personal and ideological representation on-screen can influence our social structures and beliefs off-screen. She currently lives in the always-sunny city of Philadelphia, PA.

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Essays   911   feminism   laura poitras   political cinema   surveillance cinema