Laura Poitras on filmmaking and why she picked ‘Mean Streets’ for BAM’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’

Laura Poitras on filmmaking and why she picked ‘Mean Streets’ for BAM’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’

When Ashley Clark, BAMcinématek‘s senior repertory film programmer, asked filmmaker Laura Poitras to be part of the cinema’s monthly series, “Screen Epiphanies,” her film choice came as a surprise. “When I asked her, I just assumed that would be some kind of pioneering documentary or ‘All the President’s Men,’” said Clark during a phone interview with ALL ARTS last month. “But she came back and straight away she said ‘Mean Streets,’ by Martin Scorsese, which I just simply wasn’t expecting.”

Poitras’s unexpected choice is one of the delights of the “Screen Epiphanies” series, which asks a cultural figure to select a film that has inspired them or their work. A filmmaker who works predominately in the tradition of observational cinema, Poitras is perhaps most well-known for her groundbreaking 2014 documentary “Citizenfour,” which chronicles her encounters in Hong Kong with former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.

We spoke with Poitras about “Mean Streets,” drawing inspiration from fiction films, the boundaries of documentary filmmaking and more.

How did you get involved with “Screen Epiphanies” at BAM?

I know Ashley Clark’s work as a curator because he’s programmed work that I’ve produced with Field of Vision. I get a lot of invitations to do public events, and I’m not always that excited about them. But this one, I was incredibly excited about — as a series, as a concept, as a dialogue between filmmakers and films. I just love the idea.

So when Ash asked me, I was immediately filled with thoughts about what would be the film that I would want to present and why. I let the films kind of emerge — films that have stayed with me from seeing them when I was a teenager. Films that have an imprint on my career as an artist, but also on my subconscious.

A number of films came to mind in that process, “Mean Streets” being one of them. Another film was D. A. Pennebaker’s film about David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars,” which is an observational documentary about David Bowie’s last concert as Ziggy. It is a wonderful film that is more in the tradition of the films that I do. I was struggling between those two, and also Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There are scenes in that film that I’ll never forget, that are imprinted on my brain and my subconscious.

All of the films that I thought about presenting as part of Cinema Epiphanies I saw before I ever imagined being a filmmaker. I saw them when I was just a person who loved to go to the cinema and loved to be in a dark room and watching movies, which I did a lot of before I ever considered making films.

And so what made you choose “Mean Streets” from those films?

It was the one I kept returning to. I remember I snuck into the cinema when I was 15, and it literally blew my mind in terms of filmmaking, storytelling, its energy — particularly in its use of music. There’s one thing that I’ll just never forget, which is the scene of Robert De Niro walking into a bar and the Rolling Stones are playing. It’s just this moment of how cinema can do everything. It can build emotion; it can create character; it can work with sound and picture.

In thinking of agreeing to participate in the series, I resisted my first instinct to go watch all these films again and decide which one so I could talk about it in detail. But I haven’t done that; I haven’t re-watched “Mean Streets” or the Bowie film. I wanted to let the impressions and memories be what motivated me.

When did you first become interested in film as more than just a fan?

I grew up loving cinema, but I was pursuing a career as a chef, which I did for many years. I moved to San Francisco, where I was working as a chef in a restaurant, and I started taking one class per semester at the Art Institute in San Francisco. That’s where I learned that it was possible that I could make films.

It was in a very different tradition than the filmmaking that I do now, or in a film like Scorsese’s films. It was in the tradition of avant garde cinema. My first teacher at the Art Institute was Ernie Gehr, who worked in a tradition called structuralist cinema. It was not about following characters; it was about cinema as a medium, as a formal tool — more like abstract art than representational art. In that tradition, you studied filmmaking, meaning you learned how to shoot, you learn to edit, and you direct.

So there’s not the division of labor that you have in fiction filmmaking, where you’re a director or a cinematographer or an editor. It was only then that I realized that film was a medium that I could explore, and that I could work within in a way that worked with my artistic practice, which is solitary. And that it was possible, for instance, to go into the field and shoot alone, which is something I’ve done often.

When I was studying filmmaking, I was introduced to some of the classic directors of fiction and documentary. So I saw Wiseman films; I saw Bresson, and those all had influences on me. My feeling about cinema is that there’s not so much of a divide between fiction and nonfiction. I think the language of cinema is something that crosses over and that there are many overlaps and parallels.

Particularly in the tradition of observational cinema, or cinema verité, with Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker or Albert Maysles, which I’m very much in that tradition. They really revolutionized nonfiction and liberated the camera from tripods, and approached filming in a cinematic sense that’s very similar to fiction. It’s very much using scenes as the building blocks for cinematic storytelling.

If you think about a film like “Mean Streets,” the scene of De Niro walking into a bar with music playing, that’s something that can happen in fiction or nonfiction. When I think of “Mean Streets,” there is this really beautiful sense of working with music throughout the film, which is something I try do in my films. I’m interested in music as being foregrounded in the films, and not as something that is just subtly trying to push emotions, but is bold. And I think “Mean Streets” is one of the best uses of music in film.

How much of your inspiration comes from narrative films?

When I think of filmmakers that have inspired my work, there are a lot of fiction filmmakers. It’s Kieślowski; it’s Chantal Akerman; it’s Robert Bresson; it’s Scorsese. I draw inspiration from these cinematic visionaries, even though they are working in fiction as opposed to nonfiction.

In the ’60s, when cameras were taken off the tripod and were able to follow real events, there was something really revolutionized in documentary form, where you could follow action happening in real time and follow characters and edit in a very similar way that fiction films are built. When I’m filming a situation, I’m always thinking, what’s the coverage I need to build this so I can cut this so it plays like a scene — so it’s master shots, reverse shots, establishing shots, all that kind of vocabulary that we think of in cinematic language and in fiction film.

I’m constantly pulling inspiration from fiction films. For instance, one film I really love is “Michael Clayton,” Tony Gilroy’s film. There’s this amazing closing shot of George Clooney in the back of a taxicab. It is a long shot of his face saying nothing, which I think goes on for three minutes. It’s a really radical shot. I remember seeing that at the time I was in Yemen making a film about a taxi driver who was Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard. I was already filming inside the taxi, where I mounted the camera and let him drive. Seeing “Michael Clayton” gave me confidence that I could hold a shot of somebody driving or sitting in a car with no dialogue for minutes, and it can express intrigue, mystery and suspense.

It sounds like are you kind of pre-editing in your mind as you’re filming these situations? 

I wouldn’t describe it as pre-editing, but rather since I co-edit some of my films, it’s sort of in my bones. I know what I need when I get into the cutting room.

So I do my best to give the editor (or myself) enough coverage to work with, but I wouldn’t describe it as pre-editing. Certain things I just love, like reaction shots. So I always get lots and lots of reaction shots where people are listening.

And I’m also thinking about lighting situations and where to put a camera — and where you put a camera influences the sort of mood of a scene. And so when I enter an environment I’m always thinking about what are my options here with this environment and how do I create the mood that I want to create.

For instance, when I was in Hong Kong with “Citizenfour,” I walked into the room, and I first thought, oh, god, there’s a lot of white. I wasn’t exactly excited by what I encountered, but then I was like, OK, I need to really work with this space, and it did become a claustrophobic environment that creates a sense of tension.

Is there ever a time when you feel like you have to hold back in terms of wanting it to look a certain way? Does the line between capturing the way it is and capturing it how a narrative fiction director might approach it blur?

I think it’s a relationship. I think you’re always bound by certain realities that you’re filming, and you need to tell those facts. But then within that world, we are also making cinema. Documentaries are cinema. And I think they should be beautiful. I think that they should be emotional. So I do use all those tools of cinema. But I don’t want the audience to forget that what they’re watching are real lives. There have been certain times in a film where I’ve actually inserted things that were a little bit rougher as a reminder.

For instance in a film I did called “The Oath,” the editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, realized in the editing that it was important to bring in my voice, just to remind people that there’s a filmmaker there. It was important to not make it feel like such a narrative experience that you forget that this is real life. And similarly in “Citizenfour,” in the hotel room, I was really nervous shooting. And there’s a lot of focus shifts. And I felt like that was important not to cut around, to keep some of that in so that the nervousness is transmitted to the audience.

I think these are sort of artistic choices. I want to create a sense of emotion, like in the scene in “Mean Streets,” of De Niro walking into the bar — that’s a scene that I would love to emulate that in the films that I do because of its energy and its use of space and movement and character.

How do you go about determining what to film, what stories to pursue?

It’s different for every project, but usually there’s a set of questions that I have. And then I start working, and then the people that I follow emerge out of those questions. I’m really interested in documenting history happening in real time.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the challenges of creating in the current political environment that we’re in right now. And your films do such a good job of helping people understand what’s going on in terms of larger issues. What role do you feel art and film play in helping us understand the historical moment that we’re currently living in, rather than looking back like 20 years from now?

Obviously, these are really complicated times. Michael Moore just released “Fahrenheit 11/9.” I love what he did in it, which is not just being in a reactive mode, but looking at what made this moment possible, historically. And in getting outside of the news cycle. I think that we’re all becoming a bit too reactive to the news cycle and we need to step back.

I think in terms of artists and filmmakers and journalists, we have to tell the truth. We have to keep doing our work and do it honestly. I don’t think of filmmaking as activism; I think of it as film. But I think it can impact people, and in the best case scenario, it does impact how people feel and how they understand the world. But that’s because it’s working on its own terms, which I think is artistic expression in cinema.

What we all have to keep returning to is doing work that we believe in, and I hope that it reaches people and can provide insights into the political reality that we’re in.

And are there any films that you go back to when you’re stuck creatively that just kind of gets you back in the saddle?

I would go back to certain filmmakers more than particular films, so like Kieślowski, Scorsese, the Dardenne brothers. Those are the filmmakers I return to over and over and over.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image: Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (1973). Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest.