Surveillance in the modern world has grown to be something of a given. When news broke out in 2013 of Edward Snowden and his leaks of classified documents revealing surveillance on a mass-scale carried out by the National Security Agency on not only American but also a great deal of foreign citizens, many were outraged, while others were far from surprised. Snowden’s leak was gargantuan, and Laura Poitras’ film impeccably builds what is surely one of the most important visual documents of the new century. In the digital age, information has become a powerful weapon, and privacy has grown scarce – a concept which Poitras understands as well as the best science-fiction or surveillance-based films do. Thus, “Citizenfour” appropriately arms itself with information to bring to the masses: it is directed concisely, clearly, and is relentlessly engaging from start to finish.
Whereas many a documentarian might have presented the same material without giving it much thought other than to turn on a camera, Poitras’ artistic voice shines through gracefully without ever overemphasizing itself. Beautiful wide exteriors completely indifferent to man’s follies follow devastatingly informational aural reveals. Her use of long-takes and occasional jump-cuts maintain the integrity of the information presented: here is the whole truth. In moments of possible exclusions, she aims to make it clear that something may have been excluded. Also impressive is Poitras ability to have recognized the massive importance of certain events as they unfolded in front of her, and having had the foresight to ensure extensive coverage of everything imaginable.
Unlike so many documentaries about major historical events, “Citizenfour” has the incredible advantage of so much first-hand information. And with such unprecedented access, Poitras paints a portrait of Snowden which does not bother with digging deeper into trivializing family-upbringing filler but instead meditates upon images of Snowden meditating upon what consequences he may be preparing to face. The film is relentless in its delivery of truth, but allows itself plenty of reflective breathing space when necessary. The most memorable manifestitations of such moments were of Snowden lying on his bed in a medium close-up and staring out of an over-exposed window in a medium long shot. Moments like these linger just long enough without overstaying their welcome. As Snowden gazes out the window, one gets the impression that he may watching crowds oblivious to his gaze, or may simply be surveying the streets for those arriving for his imminent capture. The film’s merit lies in the fact that it does not try to tell us what Snowden is thinking and instead just shows us the action itself.
Certain moments are cinematic in completely unpredictable ways. When the fire alarm goes off inexplicably during an interview with Snowden before any information has been brought to the public, panic and paranoia strike the hearts of the principal players and audience members alike. As everyone waits in silence, the alarm goes off again and Snowden calls the front desk only to discover it is a routine drill. Someone later in the film notes aloud that the whole situation sounds like the premise of a John le Carré novel. This idea was particularly ironic since the evening’s screening had in fact been preceeded by a trailer for “A Most Wanted Man,” which loudly advertised its source material as being a novel by noneother than John le Carré. Yet the most absurd element of all is that the film’s events are true. So much of it seems like excessive lengths to which only spy novels might go, but the spies are still out there spying.
While it is true that most of all the information presented in “Citizenfour” was already available to the public as of more than a year ago, it is another thing entirely to collect that information and present it clearly, highlighting its significance and delivering it to the masses without being condescending. It’s also one thing to read the original reports and another thing entirely to experience the fervor of The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and director Laura Poitras meeting Snowden for the first time. There is an electricity in the air of those scenes: the hope that the history unfolding in front of them will impact the future for the better. Regardless of your personal feelings about Snowden and his actions or the NSA and their actions, “Citizenfour” demands to be seen by anyone who uses technology in the modern world.Continue Reading Issue #29
English, German, Portuguese
October 10, 2014
1 hr, 54 min.
Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill