LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Unlike the often long, arduous slog of making documentary films, with subjects sometimes followed for years, the bulk of Oscar contender “Citizenfour” came together in eight dramatic days.
Inside the Hong Kong luxury hotel room of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former government contractor detailed the U.S and British governments’ secret mass surveillance programs before fleeing the territory.
“We met on a Monday, and then he went underground on the following Monday,” director Laura Poitras told Reuters ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, where “Citizenfour” is widely expected to win best documentary.
The biggest challenge, however, was what would happen if there was a knock at the door.
“I just figured I would roll as much as I can,” said the American filmmaker, who was placed on a U.S. travel watch list after her 2006 Iraq war documentary “My Country, My Country.”
“I backed up all my footage and made sure to get it out of the hotel room in case someone tried to stop us from reporting,” Poitras added.
“Citizenfour” - the final installment of Poitras’ trilogy on U.S. post-9/11 policy - will be released the day after Sunday’s Academy Awards on U.S. premium cable network HBO.
“‘Citizenfour’ is exactly the kind of movie from a documentary point of view that the Academy loves,” said Jonathan Taplin, an Oscar voter and producer of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”
The film hits the so-called Oscar sweet spot with its timely social and political import. Snowden, meanwhile, remains a political refugee in Russia.
“Citizenfour,” named after the pseudonym Snowden used in his early correspondence with Poitras, has won dozens of awards, including honors from the Directors Guild and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).
Poitras also shared a Pulitzer prize with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, who first reported Snowden’s story from the hotel room.
The filmmaker said one of the biggest challenges she faced was finding a way to understand and then communicate the technical complexity of the NSA surveillance programs.
“We come into this hotel room and talk about code name after code name, and we don’t have any idea how the puzzle fits together,” Poitras said. “You need to let the audience know that it’s OK that they don’t understand everything, because that’s part of what that’s all about.”
Oscar win or not, an HBO, CNN or Netflix deal is a big boon for getting documentaries out to what Poitras calls “the widest audience.” So far, her film has grossed a mere $2.6 million in U.S. ticket sales, according to boxofficemojo.com.
“It’s costly to release a film in theaters,” she said. “I think we’re seeing people try to figure out what the model (for documentaries) looks like going forward.”
Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler