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Sept. 11 Documentarian Wins MacArthur Genius Grant


Today on the program, we're talking with several of the 23 MacArthur Fellows officially announced today. They each received half a million dollars, no strings attached. The winners include a geriatrician, a conceptual photographer, a marine biologist, a stringed instrument bow maker, and the documentary filmmaker we're about to meet, Laura Poitras. She's working on the last in a trilogy of films about America's post-911 war on terror. The first, called "My Country, My Country," is about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It was nominated for an Academy Award. The second, titled "The Oath," was filmed in Yemen and Guantanamo, focusing on detainee Salim Hamdan.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The government has alleged that Mr. Hamdan has conspired with al-Qaida, these charges are nothing short of absurd.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: He is a war criminal. We will establish that he is a war criminal.

BLOCK: Salim Hamdan was the Yemeni detainee, the former driver for Osama bin Laden, whose case let ultimately to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on military commission. How did you approach his story?

LAURA POITRAS: Well, in this case I went to Yemen with the idea of wanting to do something on Guantanamo, and Hamdan's case was very significant because it was the first military commission case. And so the film documents kinds of the straying away from the rule of law that we've seen at Guantanamo. And it also follows his brother-in-law, a man named Abu Jandal, who worked for Osama bin Laden, and so there's these interwoven storylines.

BLOCK: How do you describe what ties your films together? The first film on Iraq, the second on the Hamdan case and the third, that you're working on now about surveillance and the NSA. What's the through-line there?

POITRAS: As a documentarian and as a journalist, I actually felt compelled that we should have a history, and it should be a history of sort of on-the-ground of what's happening post-911. And so, there are big themes that I'm interested in. Those themes are preemptive war, rendition, torture, indefinite detention without trial. I mean these are all things that are really quite large departures from United States policy before that. So, as a documentarian, I felt really compelled to have a record of that, and so they're unified by these sorts of narratives that are essentially written by the choices that the government has made in response to 9/11.

BLOCK: The work you've done and the interviews that you're describing have led to you being detained dozens of times at airports. You've been interrogated at length, your cell phone, your laptop, your camera have been seized. And you've assumed that you're on a watch list because of your work and where you travel. You've decided to finish your last film, the third in this trilogy, in Europe not here in the United States. Why don't you explain why.

POITRAS: Well, I mean what's happened, it's a series of events after - in 2006 I was put on a watch list and I've been repeatedly detained at the U.S. border as I travel. And I've had my notes photocopied and these kind of very strong kinds of harassment for the work that I'm doing. And so, you know, as a journalist who's trying to deal with work that the government is very interested in trying to keep secret, I feel an obligation to do whatever I can to protect the sources and the people that I'm working with who are taking great risks to talk me. And, at the moment, it feels safer for me to work outside of the United States, which is a sad thing to say.

BLOCK: How have you changed the way you work and how you travel knowing that you're going to be detained and questioned every time you come back to the States?

POITRAS: That's a really complicated question. The project I'm working on now, I have laptops in a couple of different cities that I leave there because I don't want to bring them with me across the border. I don't bring any notebooks with me. I, you know, phone people before, you know, I take off and I text when I land so that somebody can be monitoring how long I'm held for. And, you know, go through long sort of clearing of hard drives every time I enter the United States. And it's something that only happens at U.S. borders.

BLOCK: Has it become routine to you to do all this?

POITRAS: No, actually. I still get nervous every time I get on a plane heading home.

BLOCK: Well, Laura Poitras, thank you very much. And, congratulations on the MacArthur.

POITRAS: Thank you. Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, one of this year's MacArthur winners. Elsewhere in the program, we hear from two other winners, a geochemist who studies volcanoes and a historian who studies property ownership among slaves and their descendants.



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