Laura Poitras—the Academy and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning documentary filmmaker behind CITIZENFOUR—has a brand new show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. EFF is currently representing Poitras in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, and some of the documents disclosed in the course of that lawsuit are on display as part of the exhibit, Laura Poitras: Astro Noise.
Poitras travels frequently for her work on documentary films. And between 2006 and 2012, she was stopped and detained at the U.S. border every time she entered the country. She’s had her laptop, camera, mobile phone, and reporter notebooks seized, and their contents copied, and she was once threatened with handcuffs for taking notes. (The border agents said her pen could be used as a weapon.) Each one of these searches was conducted without a warrant, and often without explanation—all despite the fact that no charges have ever been brought against her.
Poitras was never told why she was subjected to such treatment.
In 2014, Poitras sent FOIA requests to multiple federal agencies for any and all records naming or relating to her, including case files, surveillance records, and counterterrorism documents. But the agencies either said they had no records, denying or ignoring her appeals for further searches, or simply didn’t respond. The FBI, after not responding to Poitras’ request for a year, said in May 2015 that it had located a mere six pages of relevant material but that it was withholding all six because of grand jury secrecy rules.
With EFF’s help, Poitras filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. To date, EFF has received over 900 pages of responsive documents (many heavily redacted). Some of these documents are on display on the Whitney as part of the installation entitled “November 20, 2004.” The FOIA documents are juxtaposed next to footage Poitras took on November 20, 2004 while in Baghdad documenting the American occupation. On that day, she happened to be filming in a neighborhood where an American soldier was killed. As the New York Times noted in its review of Astro Noise, the installation illustrates her attempts to retrace “the events that led to being placed on a watch list.”
All of us at EFF are incredibly proud of Laura. We hope you get a chance to make it to her show before it closes on May 1, 2016. (And if not, you might be interested in listening to The New Yorker podcast interview with Poitras about it.)