by Kathie Smith
The only thing that disappoints me more than the U.S. government’s systematic encroachment on civil liberties is the blasé acceptance of this intrusion by the voting rank and file. Since 9/11, a blanket of surveillance has quietly and somewhat sinisterly cloaked the globe, all in the name of “national security,” courtesy of some diplomatic swashbuckling otherwise known as the Patriot Act. As it turns out, heavy doses of fear mongering worked hand-in-hand with the world’s growing dependence on (and blind trust in) digital technology to create a spy web built on algorithms rather than cold war flesh and blood. The unwitting disclosure of your credit card, cell phone, and computer IP address not only created a haven for marketers (powered by Google) but also a culture that allowed for governing bodies to try their hand at mass data collection. Add social security numbers, passport and ID numbers, and snail mail monitoring to the mix of accessible information, and you have a Big Brother that can pinpoint your location, activities and interests at a flip of a switch.
Director: Laura Poitras
Producers: Mathilde Bonnefoy, Laura Poitras, Dirk Wilutzky
Cinematographers: Kirsten Johnson, Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, Katy Scoggin
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Laura Poitras
Premiere: October 10, 2014 – New York Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 24, 2014
US Distributor: RADiUS-TWC
If you are still reading: perhaps you don’t see the above statements as anti-establishment paranoia; maybe you don’t believe the labels slapped on Edward Snowden such as “traitor”; and, as a result, you are the target audience for Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. Therein lies the largest obstacle for Citizenfour—convincing a very selective society that this movie is not about taking sides but about a very strong tide that is about to tow everyone under. A haunting document from start to finish, Citizenfour surveys a moment-by-moment account of Snowden’s first contact and meeting with Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald, while also exploring the tertiary effects of splashing water on a hornet’s nest.
When Snowden contacted Poitras in January 2013, using the eponymous moniker “Citizenfour”, she was working on her third film in a trilogy on post-9/11 America, this one, not coincidentally, about U.S. surveillance. The first two, My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), chronicle the personal effects of the war on terror by telling the stories of two individuals, one in Iraq and one in Yemen respectively. While shooting My Country, My Country in Iraq, Poitras was inexplicably placed on the N.S.A.’s watch list for reasons of hearsay and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although a 2012 article by Greenwald in Salon put a stop to the detainments and interrogations, Poitras nonetheless set up residency in Germany to work on her film with some degree of privacy. Snowden might have sought Poitras because of the tenor of her work, but more importantly he knew she would understand the very long and threatening arm of the N.S.A.
Ironically, Poitras and Snowden did everything possible to deflect their own personal stories in favor of the real issues and the task at hand—to reveal the wide-spread domestic spying campaigns currently underway in the U.S. But Citizenfour is as much about Poitras’ fascinating story (holding firm in the background of this documentary) as it is about Snowden’s, both open-ended real life dramas. The heart of the movie takes place in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room, as Poitras and Greenwald converge and start planning their approach—Poitras shooting, Greenwald writing. Despite knowing how the incident played out in the newspapers and on the television, it is nevertheless heart pounding to watch from the inside as things evolve without much of a plan once Snowden’s identity and location is discovered. Their casual conversations are tinged with anxiety, heighted but laughed off by a chance fire alarm testing or a random phone call. At a certain point, the phone calls become more frequent and more inquisitive and the laughing stops. Snowden has to leave, and he fusses with masquerading his appearance—at one point testing the look of an umbrella, a current symbol for Hong Kong that Snowden could have never guessed.
Poitras weaves in footage on electronic surveillance shot prior to meeting Snowden: U.S. diplomats denying the wire-tapping that Snowden is about to prove true, anecdotes from N.S.A. whistle-blower William Binney, and testimony from Jacob Appelbaum, something of a public enemy number one when it comes to computer security and hacking. However, the pulse providing Citizenfour with a life of its own, beyond the headlines, facts and spin, resides with Snowden and the full realization of the limb he has fearlessly crawled out on. While contact with Snowden is cut off as he is hidden in Hong Kong and then shuttled to Russia, Poitras keeps the thread with him connected with on screen chats, eerily focusing on each other’s basic status and safety.
Citizenfour is not the documentary Poitras had imagined on American surveillance, and its safe to say that meeting Snowden changed the destiny of her plans irrevocably, for better or worse. My Country, My Country and The Oath are both portraits that feel like they were teased out of the woodwork of our blurred global society. Dr. Riyadh and Abu Jandal, the unique subjects of those two films, will never have the notoriety of Edward Snowden—certainly a factor that makes both of those films so special. Citizenfour is another animal altogether, even though it shares far more similarities than differences: it snaps right in place with questioning the past and future intentions of our elected officials, it tackles a political zeitgeist that is both alarming and urgent, and it mines a David vs. Goliath narrative that engages us all. But this time the stakes are much higher, for all involved, as intoned in the cloak-and-dagger pre-screenings just a couple months earlier and the flurry of ambiguity that caps the movie’s prologue. Civic duty may not include movie-going, but it does include being informed—a modest goal that Citizenfour champions with grace and courage.