February 14, 2015

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras is not afraid of contentious topics. She is well known for exploring the impact of the Iraq War and the appalling treatment prisoners in Guantanamo Bay face. Now in Citizenfour she tells the full Edward Snowden story as it happened.

Surveillance is an issue for which many governments have come under a lot of criticism recently. It was difficult to determine the extent to which it happened prior to the Snowden revelation. A lot of previous whistle-blowers were viewed under a cloud of suspicion. James Clapper, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) also testified to a Congressional Committee that no mass surveillance is done at all on millions on Americans.

So when Citizenfour begins with a message about Poitras being monitored for her prior work, it is easy to see how that statement falls apart under scrutiny.

We see The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald in action, typing away at an article. Next there is a presentation by William Binney, a former NSA employee turned whistle-blower. As his voice over comes on, we soon learn he is a former code cracker and was a senior member within the organisation. He speaks about the dangers which citizens have run into with giving so much power over to the state.

Poitras says she is contacted by an anonymous source who goes by the name Citizenfour. This individual says they have evidence about mass surveillance conducted on people all throughout the world. Vast libraries could be filled up instantly with all the information. The leader of Occupy Wall Street aptly explains the implications which mass surveillance could potentially have on future repercussions. To paraphrase, it provides an opportunity for a completely fictitious timeline and description to be created based on the metadata collected.

In a cut scene back to a black tunnel with Poitras’ voiceover, we learn Citizenfour says he will meet her and Greenwald at a hotel lobby in Hong Kong. He will be playing with a Rubik’s cube, so it is easy to identify him. After a few small talk questions, he’ll break his guise.

Moments later, the mysterious Citizenfour comes on screen. It’s Edward Snowden, a mild mannered, baby faced 29 year old. Hawaii is his home, where he lives with his long-time girlfriend, who like everyone else has no idea about what is happening. A contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton, he says most of the work he was employed to do involved the NSA. No one else has any idea about where he is.

Snowden runs Poitras and Greenwald through all the files and top secret documents which were never meant to be seen publically. He explained how he encoded it so that the NSA couldn’t pick it up. “It sounds complicated but it’s actually really easy.” After that he begins answering Greenwald’s question as Poitras is filming. A lot of the footage is very raw and emotional. There isn’t much confidential information left out. Snowden answers everything as candidly as possible. Is he telling the whole truth? It certainly seems like it.

“This is not about me,” Snowden emphasises. According to him, this mass surveillance which the GCSB conducted was to expose the disruption of privacy and wellbeing of the United States people and the rest of the world. Many overseas governments were also part of the spying program, especially the other four countries which make up the five eyes: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Soon after The Guardian sends investigative journalist Ewan MacAskill, an experienced British journalist to join in Greenwald and Poitras.

Six hours later Greenwald publishes the first article, which captures international attention around the world. New media outlets all across America are scrambling to interview the journalist. This article is about Verizon giving the NSA information on 3 million hacks.

There are flashbacks too in the film about the head of the NSA lying (supposedly) about spying on its citizens. According to him the NSA did not engage in that activity. Snowden says that was a total lie and he had the evidence to disprove that statement.

A slow steady trickle of articles about the spying continue to be published on The Guardian, leading to further pressure on the US Government to come clean. Their suspicion behind who exactly is providing the newspaper with these leads pushes them into a huge investigation. Snowden is happy to comply with Poitras and Glenn on when to come out, to protect his former co-workers wellbeing. A few days later the entire world know who Snowden is. All of this is caught on the spot in the moment.

It is hard to believe that an important part of history is playing out right there on screen. It is no fiction story; it really happened. Seeing the tense shock, the frank admissions and the sheer adrenaline add to the notion that these people sacrificed everything to get this story out. Even the choice of location for the interviews is shrewd; Hong Kong is governed by two sets of laws and won’t extradite anyone for political speech (again supposedly).

With his name all over the place, Snowden makes plans with Human Rights lawyers and the UNHCR to flee the country before federal lawyers legally find a way to trap him. Wiki Leaks founder Julian Assange is working madly to ensure he is provided with the necessary support to fly overseas, perhaps to Ecuador or Venezuela. Snowden’s luck takes a cruel turn when his passport is cancelled and he is stuck in the transit zone in Moscow.

News reports are coming out thick and fast from the White House and many other high profile congressmen. Snowden is charged with three different crimes, one of them being espionage. Barack Obama says he is no hero. Whitehouse spokespeople demand he return to the United States, where he will be entitled to a fair trial under US law. News outlets meanwhile are going on a strong offensive, criticising the government for lying and misleading the people. One person mentions that privacy is associated with freedom and without privacy there is no freedom because people will be self-censoring because conversations will no longer be private.

While the world slowly came to terms with the massive revelations, the rest of the world soon discovered the NSA was working with even more agencies. To get a full extent of the operations, book a ticket to a screening of the film.

This was the most ground breaking story of 2013. For a long time the additional security measures taken, from airport pat downs to data collecting was done in the name of counter terrorism. This went a step beyond that, tracking personal information of ordinary folk. To be honest, it was a lot like a thief caught red handed. There was no going back. Although Obama said he had called for an investigation into it, there didn’t seem to be any indication the spying would have been slowed down.

Laura Poitras is a brilliant filmmaker. The point of the film is that its delivery never gets too complicated. It has a nice chronological flow, whilst integrating relevant archive footage of news, presentations and committee hearings in. Snowden never gets too technical with the information he gives. Almost everything is explained in layman’s terms. It would certainly be difficult to prove Snowden wrong now, although when the stories of spying broke, there was a massive effort by governments to cover their tracks. Greenwald and MacAskill carried the message around the world, using their connections to implicate the US Government and other governments as well.

The film does raise a big question. Why did Citizenfour have to get made? If the government is supposed to represent the people who vote them in, why are they so keen to invade their privacy?