Citizenfour: Revealing What We Didn’t Know We Needed to Know
“…For now, know that every boarder you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not…”
– Edward Snowden to Laura Poitras, January 2013
When I heard a documentary was being made about Edward Snowden, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I did some research on the woman who was making the movie, and I was even more excited. Laura Poitras is an Academy Award nominated and winning documentarian who has made some of the most prolific documentaries of this century. Starting with My Country, My Country about the war in Iraq in 2006 and The Oath about Guantanamo Bay Prison in 2010, Citizenfour completes her trilogy on post 9/11 America. She also made a documentary short called Death of A Prisoner that released in 2013. She is a truly gifted storyteller who makes it her primary goal, not to say how she was involved, but to tell the story through the eyes of her subjects, which she does so well.
What became Citizenfour was going to be a film on the same topic, but told in a different way. Snowden only became involved in the film when he reached out to Poitras via encrypted e-mail. Poitras was placed on a government watch list in 2006, following her stay in Iraq when she was filming My Country, My Country. Because of this, Poitras has been detained at the U.S. Border almost every time she has entered the country since then, which in her own words was “dozens of times.” Her laptop was taken and looked over, and her notes and documents were confiscated and copied. She was questioned in-depth each time. As a result, she moved to Berlin, Germany to protect not only her privacy, but her work and her sources. In my opinion, she was, and is uniquely qualified to make this film because of those circumstances.
Another thing that makes this film so unique is that, like Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington did with Restrepo, Poitras makes great use of cinéma vérité in this piece. She does it in different ways than in Restrepo, but the effect is just as visceral.
At the beginning of the film, you hear a voice over. That voice is reading an e-mail, the first of many e-mails received by Poitras from codename Citizenfour, who she later found out was Ed Snowden. This happens two times in the film, and that is the only time we hear Poitras’s voice the entire film. Any other time we hear from Poitras, it’s through white text written on a black background, as seen below. These appear as transitions between segments of the film, and, towards the end of the film, the slides document important story elements that were not captured on film.
You also rarely see her in the piece at all. There are moments where you can see her reflection in a mirror in the room where Glenn Greenwald, Ewan Macaskill, Poitras, and Snowden are working on all of this, but you never hear her voice. She is present in the room, but not in the piece. She let things happen as they would, not actively trying to get involved or make it about what she is experiencing. This film is very observational in its nature, and because of that, you feel the impact of the story a lot more, and you also see how the things they are talking about affect you as an individual as opposed to how it made her feel in that moment.
She also did a fantastic job detailing what Edward Snowden was like as a person, and the reasons he made the decisions he did. The mainstream media has a tendency to try and glorify people, make them seem different than they are, but this film showed a real person, in real time, making incredibly difficult decisions on the fly, and having to deal with the consequences of those actions just as quickly. I always wondered what his motivations were, and this film does an amazing job of showing them. Instead of seeing this horrible, mean person that I think a lot of people expected to see, we saw a kind, gentle, humble man who just did what he thought was right for no other reason than it being the right thing to do. Through this film, Poitras does an amazing job of dispelling any rumors that existed about Snowden and his motivations, as well as showing the struggle that he went through personally throughout this whole ordeal.
All in all, I enjoyed this film because it shows not only the effect of mass surveillance by the NSA and other government organizations, such as The United Kingdom’s GCHQ, have on a population of people, but it shows the courage it takes to take a stand and say something about it. Regardless of what you think of Snowden and what he did, this film, if nothing else, will reveal to you just how much courage it took for him to do what he did, and the integrity it took for him to give journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan Macaskill the information instead of disseminating it himself or selling it to foreign governments. You’ll also see an expertly made film that informs you about the things that are happening, but also makes you see our government and our world in a different way. I encourage anyone who is involved with technology on a daily basis to really think about the content of this film, and what it means to live in this new era of technology.
Kendall is a 20-year-old aspiring documentary filmmaker from Park City, Utah, who is attending the Christian film school, Center for Creative Media. After film, some of her chief loves are those of coffee, dogs, and snow. Every week, she takes a look at the odd, uncommon, particularly interesting, and outright obscure ways that people produce creative visual art for the world to see. She is continuing to learn about Poitras’ use of camera angles and treatment of a story in her video production classes at CCM.