German prize for Poitras – Edward Snowden film-maker wins award for international understanding

The award-winning American documentary film-maker Laura Poitras has been voted the winner of this year’s Marion Donhoff prize, decided by the readers of Die Zeit, Germany’s liberal weekly newspaper.

This latest award from German readers is given annually in memory of Countess Donhoff, one of the founders of Die Zeit. It not a prize for journalism, but for increasing international understanding and reconciliation.


Poitras, who lived until recently in Berlin, filmed the events around US National Security

Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras (Photo: Camden, Maine)

She responded to his encrypted messages and was with Snowden in his hotel in Hong Kong, documenting his thoughts and moods as he prepared to reveal himself as the source of the leaks. Snowden stole hundreds of thousands of files showing that the NSA and other intelligence agencies routinely spied on innocent citizens as well as the leaders of the USA’s allies: German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal smartphone was amongst their targets.


Poitras explained how and why she made the documentary at London screening of Citizenfour, reproduced here by permission of Future Intelligence


Citizenfour won an Oscar – Hollywood’s top prize – at this year’s Academy Awards. It has also received a further eight international trophies.


Because of her role in telling the Snowden story, Poitras was advised not to travel to the UK or USA because she may be arrested. She settled in Berlin, but has now returned to the USA where she is working on a short film about Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.

Fact box on Wikileaks 

Wikileaks  is an online portal where anyone can reveal secret documents, showing wrong-doing in the public interest, by uploading them anonymously. Founded by Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Wikileaks published a quarter of a million files of diplomatic cables between American embassies and their counterparts around the world.


Then followed 92,000 files stolen by US intelligence officer Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning including classified video of a war crime.

Julian Assange worked with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Der Spiegel in Germany and the New York Times in the USA to publish the military and intelligence secrets, redacting them to protect innocent lives. But Manning was tricked by an undercover American agent into revealing his identity. He was court-martialled and sentenced to 35 years in jail for theft and espionage – though he was cleared of the most serious charge of ‘aiding the enemy’.


Meanwhile Julian Assange was wanted by the Americans in connection with the Manning and diplomatic leaks. And in a separate case the Swedish prosecutor brought three sexual abuse cases against him involving two women who had attended a Wikileaks conference in Stockholm. Assange denies the charges. British police arrested him in London, but his supporters including Jemima Goldsmith and Vaughn Smith paid bail so that he could be released, and he was allowed to stay at Smith’s country house.

Then as diplomatic pressure mounted from Sweden, On 19th June 2012, Assange claimed diplomatic asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, fearing extradition to Sweden or the United States. He has been there ever since …

More details: Daniel Domscheit Berg wrote a book Inside Wikileaks, the basis of an anti-Assange film The Fifth Estate in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as an autistic megalomaniac.

The authorised version of events is the documentary We Steal Secrets, which includes Assange himself, also Adrian Lomo the American hacker-spy who betrayed Manning and former CIA and the women who accuse him of sexual misconduct.

Laura Poitras’s new film Asylum documents the years Assange has spent in the embassy of Ecuador.

The Assange film, called Asylum  is the first from Laura Poitras’s new company, created as the film-making branch of online news portal The Intercept. It’s called Field of Vision, and its founders invite investigative journalists to collaborate with her team of film-makers.


In an interview in The Intercept, Poitras says they aim to link artistic film-making with investigative journalism, and cites the long-running (but now extinct) British TV series World in Action as an inspiration.


Citizenfour is almost two hours in duration, and was criticised by some media commentators as too long, with a slow pace and many lingering close-ups. Field of Vision’s new films will be in a short form, and this should make it easier for them to reach audiences via online distribution platforms.