Citizenfour (2014)

Chilling documentary about maligned whistleblower contrasts his consistent belief in privacy, transparency with government’s wild, dishonest flip-flopping.


Laura Poitras

Edited by:
Mathilde Bonnefoy

Directors of Photography:
Kirsten Johnson

Trevor Paglen
Katy Scoggin

Running time: 115 minutes

One of the biggest disappointments of the Obama presidency has been that while the president has distinguished himself by seemingly approaching questions of national security with greater circumspection, or seriousness, than his predecessor, he has often arrived at the same conclusions and committed similar actions that have eroded public trust because of the seemingly sweeping power of the executive.

This administration, which has billed itself as the most transparent in history, has been equally opaque to both the press and the public, and those who criticise the government’s operations are labelled as traitors and their patriotism questioned, not only by those who did so in support of the previous administration but also by many in the current one.

Edward Snowden is not the first government whistleblower during the Obama years, but his case has certainly generated the most publicity because of the almost unimaginable reach his leaks have exposed to the public. Halfway through Laura Poitras’ chilling documentary Citizenfour, when we see President Obama for the first time, saying “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot”, his words convey the exact opposite of what he represented when he ran for office, and he seems out of touch with reality, having become a prisoner to the greedy national security apparatus.

The title of the film refers to the name by which Snowden introduced himself when he first made contact with Poitras online. Poitras is no stranger to the government’s heavy-handedness, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have interrogated her on multiple occasions since the 2006 release of her My Country, My Country, which looked at life in Iraq after the U.S. forces invaded and occupied the country in 2003.

She shot most of Citizenfour during that exciting time in the summer of 2013 when the world did not yet know who had leaked the abundant treasure trove of National Security Agency (NSA) documents that indicated relentless, government-sanctioned spying on almost everyone. It suddenly seemed like this leak would finally cast light on the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy. For a while, that is what happened, but because the specter of terrorism still hangs over and propels every arguments from the intelligence community more than a decade after their failure to prevent the events of Sept. 11, 2001, many people at all levels of society and government are hesitant to call out the invasive nature of surveillance.

Just like those who questioned the United States–led invasion of Iraq were labelled anti-American, Snowden and those who support his selective leaks about the state’s reach into everyone’s electronic footprint are now said to be friends with America’s enemies. Although they will deny it, the people who flippantly make the latter argument seem to think that the government is their friend, when in fact it has become their enemy. Ironically, it is taking away U.S. and non-U.S. citizens’ rights while pretending to do so for their own good.

Half of the film – exactly one hour – takes place in Hong Kong, most of it inside Snowden’s room at the Mira Hotel, whither he had invited Poitras and Rio de Janeiro–based journalist Glenn Greenwald, as well as The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill. While these four people were holed up in that tiny room, Snowden’s life is on the verge of going up in flames, a fact underscored when he learns government agents have paid a visit to his girlfriend back home, even though his identity as the whistleblower was still undisclosed.

He provides documents, charts and other presentations to the journalists and helps them sift through the information that at times is almost too stunning to contemplate. Recognising the sheer scale of the revelations, Snowden confirms this is as bad as it seems. “It’s not science fiction; this is happening right now.”

This central part covers brief explanations of the meanings of multiple acronyms or other code names, such as Prism, Tempora and XKeyscore, with enough disclosure about profound overreach to keep on giving the audience goosebumps for the entire duration. This section is bookended by 20 minutes to set the stage and 40 minutes to follow the consequences of the revelations, including the infamous detention of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport in August 2013. It is an emotional moment for the audience when Miranda arrives back in Rio de Janeiro, because the feeling of despair is palpable and truly overwhelming.

What follows Greenwald’s and MacAskill’s initial articles is a media frenzy and a clampdown on Snowden’s freedom, including the U.S. Department of State’s decision to revoke his passport, which left him in the no man’s land of one of Moscow’s international airports. We do not get to see this part of the journey, because Poitras says her own security was compromised by the leaks, and she spent much of the next year in Berlin to edit her footage.

However, one scene in Brazil is surprisingly moving and concerns a speech by Greenwald at a senate hearing to investigate NSA spying on Brazilian citizens. While Greenwald lays out some of the surveillance programs and their significance, a few people in the audience hold up paper printouts of Edward Snowden’s face. This kind of solidarity with a man on the run for illuminating the dirty truth is admirable and fortunately is free of the political shading it would be subjected to if it occurred in the United States (at the very least, the silent protesters would likely be put on a watch list immediately, curtailing their freedom of travel).

The film ends with a few big moments, but because the story is so current and still developing, it is necessarily incomplete. For now, Snowden still lives in Russia as a refugee. The film contains a single scene with WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, who is also a refugee, currently in hiding inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London, but while we see him aware of Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, it is unfortunate that we get very little other information about his involvement in the affair.

The final scene strongly hints at the knowledge of wrongdoing that time and again goes all the way to the top of the U.S. executive branch. Even just going by the Snowden documents, it seems to be clear that Obama has utterly failed to live up to the promise he made in a campaign speech in 2007, when he said, “I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens, no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime, no more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war, no more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.”

Citizenfour is an absolutely riveting and utterly compelling documentary that provides details about the U.S. and UK surveillance industries that only the most dedicated reader of The Guardian may have been familiar with. Snowden, dressed in a white T-shirt as he patiently explains the complex ways in which the NSA and its partners ignore people’s right to privacy, often smiles and projects a warm, friendly demeanour, far from the egomaniacal vision of self-righteousness many in government have suggested. He is calm, direct and very articulate; he also clearly measures his words when he speaks and is reluctant to become “the story”, even though he knows it is probably inevitable.

The only person less interested than Snowden in being the focus of the media spotlight is Poitras, who never appears on camera and whose voiceover is delivered dispassionately, because the information is powerful enough and does not require any emphasis for effect. Compare this approach with the bombast and the saturated onscreen presence of Michael Moore in his films, and the narcissism of the latter becomes difficult to ignore.

It is impossible to estimate what the importance of this material will be 10 or 20 years from now, and Snowden’s future (his current residence permit is valid until 2017) remains as opaque as his own movements. Poitras’ unique access to her subject has shown us the relatable man behind the revelations whom many call a traitor even though he came forward armed with the truth, while they ignore those who lied and were caught red-handed, like James Clapper and Keith Alexander, because they were allegedly doing this to protect the country. The battle for the truth and for the recognition of Snowden’s trailblazing activities continues, but Poitras’ film has gone a long way towards rightfully rehabilitating the image of one of the 21st century’s most consequential freedom fighters.

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