Filmmaker unravelling travelling mystery
Oscar winner was detained in U.S. airports frequently
WASHINGTON — Laura Poitras’ travel nightmare began more than a decade ago when the award-winning filmmaker started getting detained at airports every time she tried to return the United States.
She was stopped more than 50 times on foreign travel, and dozens more times on domestic trips, before the searches suddenly stopped in 2012. Now, Poitras is unravelling the mystery, which goes back to a bloody day in Baghdad in 2004.
Poitras, 53, knows U.S. government officials aren’t exactly fans of her politically sensitive work. Her 2014 documentary Citizenfour, about National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, won an Oscar. Citizenfour depicted Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s rendezvous with Snowden in Hong Kong where he handed over classified material documenting NSA’s surveillance program. Her new film, Risk, is about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Still, she never knew why the security delays started in 2006. She unsuccessfully sought answers from Homeland Security. She finally took the government to court, filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2015 with help from a civil liberties advocacy organization.
Last year, as a result of the suit, the government released more than 1,000 pages of documents to Poitras. The documents show the U.S. government investigated Poitras on suspicion she might have been involved in an ambush that led to a U.S. soldier’s death in Iraq in 2004.
That November, Poitras was in Baghdad filming My Country, My
Country. The film depicts Iraqi elections from the perspective of an Iraqi doctor.
Members of a U.S. army national guard unit reported seeing a “white female” with a camera on a rooftop just before they were attacked. David Roustum, 22, was killed. Some guardsmen suspected Poitras knew about the attack and didn’t tell American forces because she wanted to film it. If true, Poitras would have broken U.S. criminal law.
Poitras called the allegation false.
“There is no ambush footage,” Poitras said.
After the attack, a lieutenant colonel, whose name was redacted from documents, reported the woman with a camera to his superiors. No action was taken.
But, after returning home, the lieutenant colonel was contacted by author John Bruning, who was interviewing guardsmen for a book about their experiences in Iraq. According to the government’s documents, the author learned about the woman filming on the rooftop.
In an e-mail exchange in January 2006, Poitras confirmed to Bruning that she was filming in the area the day of the attack, but not on the street.
“I was staying in the house of an Iraqi family I was following, so my record of the fighting is from the perspective of the family,” Poitras wrote to Bruning. “I did not venture out onto the street that day. So I really don’t have a document of what took place on the streets.”
Bruning told the lieutenant colonel Poitras was on the rooftop. The lieutenant colonel then informed the U.S. military that Poitras could have been involved.
In February 2006, military police interviewed the lieutenant colonel and the author. Bruning told investigators he believed Poitras had prior knowledge of the attack. He said Poitras was staying in a pro-Saddam Hussein neighbourhood “and she was not in fear of her life at a time when Western journalists were being abducted and executed.”
Nevertheless, army investigators wrote shortly after to the FBI, saying the army lacked sufficient evidence to charge Poitras. In May 2006, they sent a summary of their investigation of Poitras to FBI headquarters.
The airport detentions began shortly thereafter.
Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said other agencies control who is flagged as a highrisk traveller. When people are flagged, authorities must “put them through enhanced screening procedures. This is the reason for Ms. Poitras’ repeated referrals to secondary screening.”
The detentions stopped six years later after a 2012 news article highlighted her travel problems. Lapan said Poitras was no longer deemed of “significant interest.”
Poitras is seeking more information from the government.
Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras.