I’ve come to this late, but I must salute one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. Filmed in real time, Citizenfour documents the tense negotiations leading up to whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the massive state surveillance of British and American citizens. The film appeared last autumn, and I have just caught up with a recording of its Channel 4 broadcast some weeks back.
The film was made by Laura Poitras, the first journalist contacted by Snowden, and begins with their initial exploratory emails, text unfolding across the screen, as they agree the terms of their collaboration. Security is of the essence – both are familiar with the methods of deep encryption that will be essential if the project is to be successful and the individuals involved are to be secure from arrest and incarceration.
Once a safe channel of communication is established, Snowden outlines his plans to deliver a mass of classified NSA documents, proof of the routine mass surveillance of millions of people. He wants a team of journalists to work on the material, not only because the sheer volume of classified material he provides will require it, but also because he does not want the story to be about him.
If this all sounds dull, it’s not. Far from it. The film crackles with the nervous tension of a spy thriller. Although half of the film’s duration is shot within the tight confines of Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room, there are other context-setting segments, filmed in high definition, which have the flair and polish of a Hollywood blockbuster.
But, leaving aside questions of technique, the true virtue of the film is its subject – the evidence that Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor with top-level clearance, released via the Guardian and the Washington Post to the world.
There has been almost universal praise for Laura Poitras and her film. In a review at Roger Ebert.com, Godfrey Cheshire wrote:
No film so boldly X-rays certain crucial changes wrought upon the world, and especially America and its government, by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. No film so demands to be seen by every sentient person who values his or her own freedom and privacy. No film so clearly implies actions that need to be taken to prevent the 21stcentury from turning into an Orwellian nightmare in which technologically-enabled tyranny is absolute and true political liberty, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent.
For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as a portrait of ‘that very remarkable man, the former NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden’, a documentary about ‘all the staggering things governments are doing to our privacy’:
Fundamentally, privacy is being abolished – not eroded, not diminished, not encroached upon, but abolished. And being constructed in its place is a colossal digital new Stasi, driven by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible, combined with politicians’ age-old infatuation with bullying, snooping and creating mountains of bureaucratic prestige for themselves at the expense of the snooped-upon taxpayer.
There is no doubt that this is a very personal film – Poitras repeatedly speaks of herself in the first person in text that unfolds on screen – and that it is also an authorised portrait of its subject. Poitras tells how the two of them first made contact in 2013 when Snowden, using encrypted email and the alias ‘citizen four’, contacted Poitras and the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, inviting them to meet him in Hong Kong.
Snowden told Poitras that she had been selected because of her previous work as a journalist and film-maker, including a short documentary about William Binney, an earlier NSA. whistle-blower who also appears in Citizenfour. Snowden must have known, too, that Poitras was already working on a film about government surveillance (some of its footage appears in Citizenfour). We also learn that after her 2006 film about the US occupation of Iraq, My Country, My Country, Poitras was placed on a secret government watch list and stopped and searched dozens of times as she tried to enter the United States, harassment that as she notes in the film, forced her to move to Berlin.
Once contact has been made, Poitras, Greenwald and another Guardian journalist, Ewan MacAskill, meet Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras sets up her camera and begins filming, cinema verite style. Two years after Snowden’s revelations were made public, it’s not so much the scale of state surveillance that they revealed which grabs you in these scenes but, as Godfrey Cheshire put it in his review:
The sense of watching a small group of individuals embarked on an enterprise that they know is of tremendous historical import, yet also potentially dangerous and with no guaranteed outcome. In such a context, every small gesture, pause and decision can seem to take on great meaning, creating a constant sense of tension and discovery.
But what Snowden did reveal, of course, was that the governments of the United States and the UK are engaged extensively in collecting data from every phone call, every email, every internet search we make. This pre-emptive mining of data extends way beyond those suspected of terrorist activity. As Snowden says: ‘We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind’.
Whilst the Snowden revelations have generated an enormous response in America and Germany, here in the UK, despite the Guardian’s extensive coverage, they have created barely a ripple. Such discussion as there is tends to be framed in terms of encroachments on our privacy. True, the surveillance powers now exercised by the state do invade our privacy, but fundamentally this is about monitoring – and curbing – dissent.
Reviewing Citizenfour in the Telegraph, Tim Robey averred that ‘everybody needs to see it’, concluding:
It’s a truism that nothing on the internet is private: to Snowden’s alarm, Poitras’s, and possibly ours, a revolutionary technology in the widening of intellectual freedoms is apparently being used as an all-purpose tool to shut them down.