On view at Artists Space through February 15, 2015
Following the attacks of 9/11, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, like many of her contemporaries, trained her lens on the government’s response at home and abroad.
She traveled first to Iraq, where she filmed the al-Adhadh family, whose patriarch, the Sunni doctor Riyadh al-Adhadh, was running for office in the contentious 2005 Iraqi election. In tracing al-Adhadh’s daily routine, and his fluctuating hopes and fears leading up to the election, My Country, My Country revealed the stakes and spectacle of the geopolitical moment and earned Poitras an Academy nomination. Her next film, The Oath, followed Abu Jandal, a Yemeni taxi driver and the brother-in-law to Bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan. Hamdan was imprisoned in Guantanamo for five years before being tried and cleared of charges. The mood of Hamdan’s homecoming, like that of the al-Adhadh family following the elections, is tense rather than joyous; for both parties, these occasions mark but a temporary reprieve from an existence dominated by tension and uncertainty.
The final film in Poitras’s 9/11 trilogy, Citizenfour, tells of the sweeping rise of the U.S. surveillance state and the government’s war on its whistleblowers, using Edward Snowden’s story as its centerpiece. While demonstrating how the details from the N.S.A.’s program unfolded on the world stage, Citizenfour shows journalists and activists grappling with the startling news and Snowden navigating a precarious fate in exile.
As in a historical play, the films show the deliberations, calculations, and supplications of men on the eve of life-changing events. The events in each are important not only to the protagonists’ personal lives in the past but to the political currents still unfolding in the present. This makes the presentation of Poitras’s work at Artists Space, continuously and with free admission, a pressing public service. Coinciding with the release of Citizenfour in theaters, the SoHo gallery is screening My Country, My Country and The Oath, three times daily, as well as three related short documentaries—Death of a Prisoner, PRISM Whistleblower, and The Program—on loop. For those in need of a refresher on the details of the U.S. government’s invasion of Iraq, abuses at Guantanamo, legalization of torture, and unprecedented surveillance apparatus, Poitras’s short films provide a poignant, urgent reminder.
PRISM Whistleblower introduced Snowden and his motivations to the world for the first time when it was posted on the Guardian’s website in 2013. In The Program, Poitras interviews another N.S.A. whistleblower, William Binney, one of the best crypto-mathematicians in the agency’s history and one of Snowden’s inspirations. When Binney realized that the N.S.A.’s Stellar Wind program, which he originally helped create for foreign intelligence gathering, was being used domestically to collect the data of American citizens, he resigned in 2001. He began speaking out publicly in 2011, putting his livelihood and life at risk.
Death of a Prisoner tells the story of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif’s imprisonment in Guantanamo via his letters to his family, read to them by his lawyer. He died there after nearly 11 years of imprisonment, though he was never charged with a crime. Out of the 127 detainees currently held at Guantanamo, 35 have been designated for indefinite detention, meaning they will be subject to its substandard procedures without charge or trial. Since 2002, nine detainees of Guantanamo, including Latif, have died.
In light of the exhibition’s immediate salience, the presentation format of these documentaries is a bit puzzling. The films are left to speak for themselves, displayed without supporting historical or evidential materials, or even photographs from a shoot. The features are projected in black rooms, and the short films play on small screens with headphones against a white wall. This seems like a missed opportunity on the part of the organizers to emphasize the contexts and contents of our foreign and domestic policies.
A leaflet, or wall text, for instance, outlining the extent to which the government’s unchecked human rights violations abroad would begin to severely undermine civil liberties at home—including Poitras’s own freedom to travel for work—would have helped to turn passive viewers into potentially politicized, and implicated, subjects. Realistically speaking, it is unlikely that anyone will spend more than one hour with the films—especially considering that two are feature length. But without any substantive mediation or materials shown alongside the work—save for the title, date, and identifying credits of the crew—the slick exhibit leaves you wondering to what end this work is being shown in the first place.
When viewed together in the gallery setting, Poitras’s work emerges less as a pressing testament to unchecked state power and more as an aesthetic object. This is not necessarily unwarranted; Poitras, by her own account, understands herself as much as an artist as she does a journalist. If her deft and unobtrusive camera becomes the subject of the show, then the venue succeeds in foregrounding the efficacy of its unadorned gaze. Poitras’s films are not like many other “issue documentaries” in the conventional sense of the genre. There are few talking heads and animated infographics. As a rule, she does not interview her feature subjects directly, preferring instead to patiently track their everyday movements and momentous actions. Her camera focuses on lives scarred by the War on Terror better than any diegetic commentary could. If there is something to be gained by seeing the work in this venue, it is this focus on Poitras’s aesthetic of intimacy in an age of mass surveillance.
AVA KOFMAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.