Laura Poitras’s Snowden film, Citizenfour, is a welcome return to documentary that doesn’t tell us what to think.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Citizenfour’s Edwardian drama
Filmmaker Laura Poitras was one of three people initially contacted by whistleblower Edward Snowden when he decided to make public classified documents that revealed how United States security agencies were accessing telecommunications data to covertly spy on millions of Americans. Her film, Citizenfour, is a propulsive and tense documentary that details the highly secretive negotiations and arrangements required to make those leaks possible. With a composed and careful rigour, it also details how new digital technologies allow for previously inconceivable surveillance and intrusion into all aspects of human life and activity.
It is one of the strengths of the film that it doesn’t claim such a totalitarian nightmare has arrived; but for all its calm, investigative power, it conveys fiercely the danger of such a dystopian future being realised.
Snowden, who worked on contract for the National Security Agency, contacted Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, a journalist from The Guardian, because their work over a decade as, respectively, documentarian and investigative journalist, had detailed the US military and security agencies’ unprecedented gains in powers to monitor American and international individuals and organisations in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. Snowden’s choice, a leap of faith that he could trust these two individuals to share his concerns that the US government was acting illegally, forms the central narrative spine to the film.
Poitras was there, filming, in the hotel room in Hong Kong when Snowden first revealed the extent of his knowledge to Greenwald and a fellow journalist from The Guardian, Ewan MacAskill. Over the course of a week, we see suspicion and paranoia slowly replaced by trust. Poitras wisely removes herself from the frame – we see her only reflected in mirrors – but an expertly judged voiceover narration gives us details of emails shared between herself and Snowden.
Through the course of the film we get a clear sense of the personalities of the four individuals, and we come to understand their real fear of being imprisoned for their actions and their genuine excitement at making history. Poitras’s choices as a director never feel forced or programmatic; she trusts her audience and the film gives us the space to critically assess each participant’s motivations. But the time line to the eventual publication of Snowden’s incendiary material, with our increasing understanding that at any moment the international espionage network could infiltrate Snowden’s meticulous covering of his digital tracks, gives the film an unnerving and energising tension.
In part, due to the necessity of filming in real time, Citizenfour recalls the great works of cinéma vérité, in particular the Vietnam War-era films of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. Poitras shares their commitment to a realist cinema that prioritises observation over interpretation, that takes as pivotal the filmmaker’s trust that we as an audience will bring an educated and informed critical judgement to our viewing of the film. She allows us to make our own interpretation. It is an aesthetic far removed from the trend in recent documentaries to place the filmmaker at the centre of the narrative, as in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – in all of Moore’s work, for that matter – or, as in The Corporation, to have hyperactive visual graphics and relentless use of edits curtail any space for genuine inquiry or contemplation. It is also thankfully free of the preordained moralism of a film such as Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
I came out of the above three films thinking I knew less than when I went in, so distrustful was I of the filmmakers’ agendas and domineering points of view. It is exactly opposite to my reaction to Citizenfour, where I left the cinema realising how little I knew before and how much I needed to further explore. Clarity is possibly an increasingly undervalued criterion for judging documentary. This film reminds you of its importance.
It also consciously recalls another great work of ’70s US cinema, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, a fiction film that had an increasingly paranoid surveillance agent, played by Gene Hackman, at its centre. That film was drenched in the pessimism and paranoia of post-Watergate America. Both films share a claustrophobic intensity, and the sense of our perspective shifting with every new piece of information we are given. But Poitras makes a clear-headed and wise choice to cut away from the intense drama unfolding in the hotel room and show us lectures, legal hearings and community meetings, where activists, lawyers and former military personnel detail how they have come to an awareness of the way security provisions allowed for in the Patriot Act have worked to curtail cherished notions of democratic freedom and the right to privacy. They also succinctly explain how the war on terror allows for a gross manipulation of foreign citizens and governments by the US.
By the end of The Conversation, Hackman’s deranged Harry Caul is on his hands and knees desperately trying to dismantle his apartment, convinced that there is no escape from the Orwellian glare of the state. But although Citizenfour exposes a contemporary surveillance reach unthinkable to Caul, through the emphatic return to individuals who are willing to stand up for judicial process, for democratic liberty and for freedom of speech, it allows for a hope that was not possible in the pessimistic world view of the earlier film.
It is not only outside that hotel room in Hong Kong that hope resides. Snowden and Greenwald emerge as deeply fascinating characters, complex and committed. The boyish and attractive Snowden has libertarian ethics, and a trust in the constitutional foundations of the US nation-state that sees him willing to lose everything in his urge to have his fellow citizens know how they have been lied to and abused by their government. Greenwald’s faith in his vocation as journalist is equally ardent. Poitras captures them in moments of confusion and in moments of vanity, particularly in Snowden’s case, but not once did I believe she was being unfair to or indulgent of her subjects.
This isn’t a film that pretends to an impossible objectivity: its powerful effect on us resides in the urgency with which it makes its case that global communities are at great risk from legislation enacted and actions taken by governments in the name of security.
But Poitras is also a born filmmaker and she knows that in Snowden she has a great subject. The film allows a viewer the space to question and deliberate on the complexities of the story it tells, but it also makes clear that whatever our judgement, Greenwald and Snowden are intelligent, articulate and courageous.
And so is Poitras. A US citizen, she now resides in Berlin, unable to continue to work as an investigative documentarian within her home country. Her previous films have always been fascinating but they lacked the precise formal elegance of Citizenfour, as if in trying to say all she could about, for example, the Iraq war in My Country, My Country, she never found a mastery over the material; the unresolved contradictions of her perspectives proved unsatisfying. Those earlier films lacked coherence, that clarity I mentioned earlier. But in this film she has found both her subject and her focus. Citizenfour is a great work.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Edwardian drama". Subscribe here.