One of the surprise entries on Sight & Sound’s 2014 films of the year was the inclusion of Citizenfour, Laura Poitra’s extraordinary behind the scenes expose on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s initial contact with renegade journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian’s Ewan MacGaskill. Poitras is no stranger to the authorities having been clandestinely surveiled, frequently detained and questioned for having the temerity to criticize the government for their opaque prosecution of the ‘War’ on terror in previous works such as My Country My Country, and The Oath, two pieces which evidently got her registered on a number of Orwellian watch-lists. She has continued to expose the shredding of civil liberties, spot-lit the deployment of powers to repress genuine free speech rights to assemble and demonstrate, bravely engaged in a dangerous struggle with the implacable and illegitimate government edifice that cites every rape of the truth as being necessary in the name of ‘national security‘. To a paranoid Snowden then she must have seemed like an ideal candidate to approach in order to leak his insights and information from behind the veil, the revelation of a top-secret, undemocratic and out of control programme of electronic interventions which effectively gave the government the power to harvest, persue and interrogate every electronic correspondence by every citizen without a nanosecond of oversight from either legally mandated search warrant or indeed any arm of the legislature. In a quite extraordinary fashion Citizenfour walks us through the initial electronic contact between Snowden and Poritas, the initial subterfuge and mystery, before the first meetings and interviews occurred with Snowden in his Hong Kong bolt-hole as the enormous scandal slowly enveloped the globe.
This is absolutely essential viewing, a historical archive of one of the most pertinent civil rights and digital culture issues of our time, an expose of our alleged democracy and the continual threat from unobserved, unscrupulous, undemocratic and unelected officials. CitizenFour is very consciously and ominously paced and maintained, there’s no exciting crash montages of neon drenched cityscapes harmonized with pulsing techno-beats to indicate that this is the exciting cyberspace future, in fact it is a rather more chilly, mysterious urban noir as the screen scrolls with genuine cautious correspondence between Snowden and Poitras. Once he was satisfied he’d found the ideologically aligned collaborators the action shifts to the initial fly on the wall Hong Kong suite discussions, and this is where Snowden fully disclosed the breathtaking scope and illegality of programmes such as PRISM and Tempora. Poitras skillfully splices this with contextual footage of court proceedings and cultural seminars to provide the necessary context, treating its viewers as intelligent adults as it moves swiftly through the nature of civil liberties in the age of the globalized internet, of the wider remit of the NSA and explosion in private security apparatus since 9/11. Some of the footage is should make you incandescently angry, including testimony from NSA directors absolutely, 100% lying to senate oversight committees (Senator: ‘Do you harvest electronic surveillance information from US citizens in the aggregate?’ NSA Director: ‘No sir we do not’), a brave new world where from the inalienable rights of freedom of speech, right of assembly, due process and everything else we prize are under significant risk. Further glimpses of he Occupy movement whose hounding and persecution seen in the film is nausea-inducing, before the scale of the scandal irises out to include every European government as complicit in the crimes.
Like every other country on the planet I think the United States has its problems and hypocrisies but I cannot imagine many places where the citizens of one city grouping together like San Francisco does in this film, to sue the government for the illegal intrusion into their lives and forcing the authorities to expose their transgressions, a case defended by one particularly odious proto-Goebbels government lawyer who continually bleats the defense of ‘national security’ for each and every charge.When the further revelations that not only were US authorities conducting this rape of their specific constitution but also all the major European powers were indulging in identical activity, hacking democratic elected world leaders phones and correspondence of so-called allies, the impression is of an utterly paranoid shadow world, completely out of control and making a mockery of civil rights. To the ignorant and uneducated who make the claim that ‘if you have nothing to hide then why are you worried?’ the film makes the consequences of that belief system clear. It’s not just a question of private intrusion, of the holistic capture and interrogation data by current (and crucially) future governments to surveil without judicial oversight and responsibility, without legislative oversight to effectively kick in your door, rifle through all your private correspondence with your wife, husband, family, friends, mistress; to plunder your medical records and bank statements, to see what porn you jack off to, to record your political affiliations and voting history, to observe and exploit every aspect of our lives in this increasingly electronic and globalized world . And it gets worse, not only is this power granted to your government, but it is also granted to foreign governments across the Western world, so I ask how happy would you be for the United Kingdom, Canadian, American, New Zealand and Australian governments to break into your home and rape your civil rights every single minute of every day? It’s such a fundamental corruption of one of the states primary duties to its citizens liberty and security that it just beggars belief.
Amongst the political and electronic chattering Poitras mainframes a human dimension to the dossier, the simple vérité recording of Snowden as the events and scandal unfolds awards the piece with a tangible and compelling level of emotional drama. The whistleblower comes across as an intelligent, committed and slightly idealistic young man who perhaps has not fully anticipated the obliterating force of the state apparatus zeroing in on his friends, family and partner. Witnessing the incremental pressure build as the leak slowly gains traction and its effect on his speech, body language and general demeanor is quite affecting, as the realization of the irreversible sacrifices he has made slowly begin to crystalize. An Oliver Stone adaption of this crucial scandal is in the works which I’m sure will be as bombastic and nuanced as a laser guided 200lbs daisy cutter, for now this is unquestionably one of the crucial documentaries of its time, brilliantly assembled and intellectually robust, a primer for our times and a warning for the future;