- Jacob Appelbaum
American film reviewers have been hailing Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour in terms so hyperbolic as to risk inviting ridicule. “One of the major and defining documentaries of recent times”, “an electrifying countdown to an epoch-altering event,” “[it] isn’t a film so much as a big fucking deal,” and, as the poster boasts, “the movie of the century”.
Film buffs that know a lot more than Farrago are saying it’s a lock in for the Best Documentary Academy Award. But, besides all the bluster and hubris, who or what exactly is Citizenfour? Can it make boring things like ‘leaking documents’ visually interesting, and, more importantly, away from its headline grabbing subject matter, is it actually good?
First up, Citizenfour is a first-hand account of the world’s most famous fugitive, Edward Snowden and his leak of millions of top-secret National Security Agency files. The files detail the extent to which governments and telecommunications companies spy on their citizens and customers, how they covered it up, and the lies they told, under oath, about not doing so. While the issues of security and privacy are of massive importance, key to Citizenfour is that director Laura Poitras was the first of three journalists Snowden leaked documents to, and she filmed their first meeting.
The reason why this film is not just good but worthy of its hype, is balancing the intimacy and immediacy of millions of documents from US intelligence archives to Snowden’s laptop to the global media, with a study of Snowden himself.
The early sequences of Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald and Snowden’s novel-worthy introduction in the lobby of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong (Snowden: “I’ll be the one working on a Rubik’s Cube. You’ll ask me what time the restaurant opens. I’ll tell you and then warn you that the food is bad…then we’re good”) makes this seem almost fictional. Once upstairs in the hotel room things became very real very quickly. As Snowden said in an interview with the New York Times, “we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on.”
Watching her, Greenwald, and later the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill (flown over once Greenwald emailed him the code phrase “the Guinness is good”) try to maintain their composure when they realise they are getting the greatest journalistic scoop of modern times plays out like a white-knuckle thriller.
From Snowden’s heavily encrypted attempts to contact them using his codename Citizenfour, to his Julian Assange-enabled escape from Hong Kong to Moscow (soon to be the subject of its own film), Citizenfour leaves you with the feeling there is far more of this story to tell. Oliver Stone is working on his own version, in which Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is cast as a modern day hero. Poitras has hundreds of hours of additional footage, much of which is likely to be just as jaw dropping as her story here.
Unlike the Assange documentary Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets, Snowden is clearly uncomfortable with being the centre of attention. As much as some wings of America media may like to demonise him, Snowden – unlike Assange - is not a divisive character. He is at pains to point out that he is driven to do what he thinks is right, at immense personal cost. In the film he is clearly incredibly anxious, but also clear-headed and calm. His transition from earnest nerd to literal overnight celebrity makes it so watchable. Snowden, well aware that the media will try to deflect attention from embarrassed politicians to a character assassination, has unreserved loathing for the way national security leaks have happened in the past. “Some people want to skulk around in corridors and speak anonymously? Fuck that.”
The personal cost clearly eats away at him, and several scenes of him chatting with his until-now oblivious girlfriend as she tells him their house is being raided and she’s detained and questioned by police are potent.
Poitras’s balancing of the personal, political and cryptographic is what drives the film. That she pulled a narrative arc together from thousands of hours of footage of talking heads, people typing, courtroom antics, security infrastructure and impassioned nerds is remarkable and speaks to not only her skills, but those of editor Mathilde Bonnefoy.
While revealing little of the content of the documents, Poitras sets the stakes high at the outset and the film never stoops to sermonising. This withholding of judgement has earned Poitras and the film’s distributors The Weinstein Company a civil lawsuit in which they’re are accused of “aiding and abetting the theft and misuse of stolen government documents.”
Much of the press around Citizenfour is about issues it raises rather than the film itself, and, oddly, it fits into a continuation of conversations started by the events it depicts. How it was made, its partially redacted press screenings and secretive last minute New York Film Festival premiere last October and Poitras (notably almost excised from the film) has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight. World changing events have never been seen this intimately before. While Snowden pledged “public interest” as the driving factor behind his leaks, the public have been coming out of cinemas on Team Snowden (“What matters are how people feel about these issues, regardless of your opinion of me,”) or Team USA (which is also Team Australia since George Brandis, Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott have repeatedly accused Snowden of treason, treachery and of being a traitor to his country).
Whichever way you view it, everything has changed since the encounter shown here. How citizens think about their government, how governments treat their citizens, relations between telecommunications companies and governments, the role of the courts in national security issues, and the media’s increased reliance on whistleblowers to tell public interest stories.
The Australian government blame Snowden’s leaks (still being drip-fed by Greenwald’s website The Intercept) for forcing them to engage in data retention policies. Policies even the government’s supporters view as overreaching and imposing massive limitations on the freedoms of its citizens. Policies that will ‘drive up prices for Internet and phone services’ and, according to the telecommunications companies involved, ‘be a major intrusion into the lives of every Australian.’
Whether these come to pass remains to be seen. Either way, long after this film leaves cinemas its issues will remain in news headlines. As the opening sentence suggests, the conversation has changed, and that is exactly what Snowden set out to do.