Citizenfour (2014)


Insightful and provocative, Laura Poitras’ firsthand account of the days preceding Edward Snowden’s explosive revelations is quietly momentous and powerful.


Patriot Games

by Dave O’Flanagan

Having herself become victim to the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, Oscar nominated director Laura Poitras set out to make a documentary on the post 9/11 Surveillance State. When Poitras began shooting in 2011, the world had been introduced to Bradley Manning, Wikileaks and its controversial founder Julian Assange. Just two years later an encrypted email from an unknown source would allege to have access to an unprecedented amount of top secret NSA documents. Featuring never-before-seen footage of Edward Snowden in the hotel room he took refuge in in Hong Kong, Citizenfour is a momentous, emotional and powerful look at the quieter moments behind the biggest intelligence leak in history.

Using the screen name “CITIZENFOUR”, Edward Snowden contacted filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras in January 2013 claiming to possess evidence of mass indiscriminate invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (‘NSA’). Snowden chose to leak the documents to Poitras having discovered she had become subject to government surveillance through a Glenn Greenwald article in Salon in April 2012. Poitras’ documentary follows her discussions with Snowden and Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel room in early June 2013.

As Edward Snowden readies himself to leave the hotel room he’s called home for over a month, he mutters an expletive as he anxiously pats down some errant and unruly hairs with a towel and some gel. Standing in front of a mirror, he twists and turns making minor adjustments with his hands until he steps back, satisfied with his appearance. It’s a private moment shared with director Laura Poitras as he prepares to step off the ledge into the unknown. In this moment, Snowden is effectively shedding the last vestige of the life he knows and preparing for a new one – one that potentially involves arrest, extradition, or some unknown more sinister fate at the hands of his former employers. Together with an unintentionally hilarious incident on the phone to the front desk of the hotel as well as a coincidentally-timed fire alarm scene, we see the man behind the news stories.

It’s in these quiet moments that Citizenfour is momentous. It doesn’t present us with a brave, hardy and selfless patriot – although he certainly is – it presents us with a gangly, nerdish, fiercely intelligent and good-natured 29-year old systems administrator from North Carolina. Facing estrangement from his friends, family and girlfriend, as well as extradition to the United States for criminal charges under the Espionage Act, Snowden exhibits a relatively relaxed demeanour. The quiver in his voice and periodic shake in his hand tell a different story, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see a man under such catastrophic pressure exist before your eyes.

With the unfettered access to Snowden over the course of a week or so in Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that the film loses a touch of its delicate intensity when he is forced off the screen. Having to ‘go dark’ upon leaving Hong Kong, we only see periodic encrypted IM chats with Poitras and Greenwald. Most of us will be aware of the fallout following the release of the documents, and while the film continues to entertain and inform, the inevitable shift in focus from Snowden to the fallout is slightly less enthralling. That being said, there is no shortage of prestigious and interesting contributors in Snowden’s absence in Jacob Appelbaum, former US intelligence official William Binney and Julian Assange.

First and foremost, Citizenfour is a celebration of journalism, it’s a celebration of the bravery of Edward Snowden and to a lesser and unintentional extent, Poitras and Greenwald. It serves as an indictment on the Obama administration for creating in some instances and perpetuating the ongoing erosion of civil liberties. Poitras’ documentary feels like a privilege, for the audience to be able to live in these intensely private moments in Snowden’s life. Like the moment he discovers his girlfriend isn’t coming back, or that his rent cheques have been mysteriously cancelled and he faces eviction, or the NSA will break into his house – you end up internalising his issues, asking yourself how you would cope. Ultimately, Citizenfour resonates like no other documentary, it’s a unique and ground-breaking insight into the quieter moments that parallel the story exploding across the World.

Citizenfour premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on 17th October to 50+ UK cinemas with live satellite & with director Laura Poitras and is on general release 31 October

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