*** (3 stars)
d – Laura Poitras
ph – Laura Poitras, Kristen Johnson, Trevor Paglan, Katy Scoggin
ed – Mathilde Bonnefoy
p – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, Jeremy Scahill
Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 10th 2014. Before the NYFF schedule had been announced it was unknown, or at least unclear, to the public that she had been working on such a film. After My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010), this is her third film in a row that deals with the ramifications of 9/11. As a result, Ms Poitras is on a government watch-list for her activities.
Edward Snowden is now a name that I suspect is familiar to most of you, so let’s go from there. He was preparing to leak the information that he obtained while working as an NSA contractor – being himself very involved in how it was being disseminated and how the story was going to be broken. Mr Snowden strategically endeavored to contact The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald and subsequently Ms Poitras who was, for some reason, a person he trusted.
After months of encrypted emails, Mr Snowden, without revealing his identity, divulged that he had valuable information and asked if Ms Poitras would help him share it. She agreed to meet him in June 2013, along with Mr Greenwald, in a hotel room in Hong Kong where he revealed who he was and why, over the course of an 8 day interview. This led to the documents on surveillance being leaked.
These are the facts. What makes Citizenfour an enthralling, borderline terrifying film is not because it relays information we already know, but because it depicts an urgent, real-life situation, as it literally unfolds, through the eye of the cinema. Ms Poitras, armed with her trusty camera, filmed it all; it is the primal account of what happened.
Ms Poitras now lives in Berlin for fear of being detained when entering US soil. She edited the film there with Mathilde Bonnefoy. The elegance of the film’s editing, the hyper-translucency of the events that unfold is as all-consuming and riveting as any of the greatest fiction spy thrillers ever made. Throughout the film, Mr Snowden reiterates that he wants the information to be the narrative and not himself. Yet Ms Potrais’s film, as sensitive as it is, flourishes when capturing cinematic manifestations: a fire alarm test that the hotel conducts, a Selena Gomez song playing on TV, Mr Snowden’s troubled relationship with some hair gel.
Is Edward Snowden a whistleblower or a traitor? One might think that Snowden isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Did he go about this whole thing in a way that truly did any good? Citizenfour is undoubtedly a flattering portrait of Snowden; it was always going to be. But the film is less about scrutinizing the Obama administration’s promise of hope and more about a citizen of the world having a crisis of conscience. The immense guilt we witness by someone who, in order for this to occur, lied to his family, including his frightened longtime girlfriend, is severely palpable.
Is to be blasé to be defeatist? We as human beings are aware that we most likely have seven or eight or even nine decades to live our lives and therefore we formulate what we care about. I know many people who believe a government monitoring your computer and listening to your phone calls is no big deal. Ms Poitras, Mr Greenwald and Mr Snowden all clearly believe that callousness is a force as powerful as conviction and Mr Snowden – who now lives under asylum in Russia with his girlfriend – feels his actions will trigger others to come forward. No matter which side of this argument you fall, Citizenfour will scare you either way.