Between black boxes, white cubes, festivals, cinemas and biennales, when filmmakers become artists is often a question of definition and institutional context rather than form. With an empirical and almost scientific gaze, Laura Poitras’ works appear to sit firmly on the side of documentary filmmaking rather than art, and if there are nods towards the ‘artistic’ in her work, they are barely perceptible. And yet, provocatively (in many senses of the term), here they are in a contemporary art space, asking us to watch them with the ‘disposition’ of such a space in mind.
Questioning Poitras’ artistic credence however, is less interesting than examining Artists Space decision to mount this exhibition, and further, what this curatorial purpose brings to an understanding of her films and her practice. Within the show are two feature-length documentaries, ‘My Country, My Country’ (2006) and ‘The Oath’ (2010), both of which landed Poitras on a Homeland Security watch list. Both films are architecturally paired by two purpose-built soundproofed ‘black boxes’ within the lofty Greene St gallery of Artists Space. Between this pairing are three short works, ‘The Program’ (2012), ‘Death of a Prisoner’ (2013) and ‘PRISM Whistleblower’ (2013), shown on monitors. Cumulatively these five films forge a set of linked narratives that take us from Yemen and Afghanistan to Guantanamo and Washington, and from Iraq and now Syria to the homes and hotel rooms of NSA whistleblowers, most famously Edward Snowden, who selected Poitras along with Glen Greenwald and Bart Gellman as the recipients and caretakers of his revelatory intelligence leaks in 2013.
While one can only watch one film at a time here, the simultaneous run of four other works in proximity allows one to experience a contracted representation of the world(s) that they cumulatively represent. The gallery exhibition as a format gives literal shape to complex spatial and historical narratives that the works also forge, physically indexing a dynamic of interrelation in a way that a more cinematic screening situation could not. For the longer works in particular, the privileged, quiet and minimal space of a purpose-built viewing environment with just a few chairs and a limited audience trains one’s concentration and engagement with Poitras’ cast of real-world characters with perhaps more intensity than a cinematic space ever could.
And what of this cast of characters? Although ‘9/11 Trilogy’ behaves rather like an extended introduction to the cinematic release of the much-anticipated (and lauded) ‘CITIZENFOUR’, Edward Snowden – upon whom the 12.5 minute ‘PRISM Whistleblower’ focuses – is not the most compelling voice within the mixed dialogues of this show. Arguably the most compelling voice is established within ‘The Oath’, which follows the trial of Guantanamo detainee Salim Hamdan. Along with the trial, the film spends much of its time with Hamdan’s brother in Yemen, an ex-bodyguard of Osama bin Laden and now ‘rehabilitated’ taxi driver. At once charismatic, magnetic, witty, philosophic, and horrifying, he tests the limit of his audience’s sympathy. Given that his life is knitted to the longue duree of the ‘War on Terror’ – his and his own brother’s relation to which he powerfully and intelligently describes – it is easy to empathise with much of what he says. Yet at the same time, much of what he says is brimming with unexamined notes of hatred, dogmatism and menace. He cannot fully satisfy the guilty sympathy that a liberal-minded viewer would like to derive from him and like many of Poitras’ interviewees and even subjects of investigation, he is impossible to dismiss and impossible to ‘follow’.
On the very evening of the exhibition’s opening, the gallery’s atmosphere was harassed by the thumping buzz of surveillance helicopters roaming over nearby Broadway, where protests against police shootings in Ferguson and New York were taking place. Contrasting and connected to what was being said within and between Poitras’ films, these aerial machines captured the gallery, its visitors, and the works beneath. Yet even in the weeks since this exhibition opened, affairs of violence, surveillance, censorship and war have marched forward. To say that these films are more relevant today than they were a year or even a month ago, however, would be trite. It’s not that these films become more relevant as time passes, but that time increasingly affirms their horror and dismay.