Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary offers a unique insight into Edward Snowdens historic whistle-blowing.
Country: USA 2014


In January 2013, documentary maker Laura Poitras received an encrypted email from someone calling themselves Citizenfour, who – after they established further encrypted correspondence – claimed to be in possession of detailed information relating to the US authorities’ surveillance systems. Poitras, who at this point was already working on a film about surveillance, was herself already on the authorities’ «watch list» in the aftermath of her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Her Oscar-nominated film depicted the consequences of the US warfare and occupation on the Iraqi people, first and foremost through a family she followed closely. Her camera presence near an attack in which a US soldier was killed, created rumours that Poitras knew the assault would happen. The accusations were never proven, and in her defence, there were so many attacks that day that it would have been hard for a journalist not to be in the vicinity of the fighting. Poitras herself denies any prior knowledge of the attack, and claims that she almost continuously recorded material for My Country, My Country – and thus found it natural to film when such scenes occurred. Nevertheless, her name ended up on a list of people the US authorities follow, which led to more than 40 extensive and time consuming security checks at various airports around the world whenever she travelled. On one such occasion, her mobile phones and computers were even confiscated for weeks. Poitras never received any formal explanation for why she ended up in the authorities’ spotlight. However, this experience was one of the reasons she was contacted by the mysterious Citizenfour.

Secret encounter. A while into the correspondence, she was told to contact journalist Glenn Greenwald, who at this point wrote for The Guardian. Later, it becomes clear that Greenwald had also been contacted by the same Citizenfour, but failed to reply to the anonymous emailer’s demand for sufficient encryption of their potential further electronic correspondence. After a while, Poitras was instructed to meet with Greenwald at a hotel in Hong Kong, where the informant – the now world famous Edward Joseph Snowden, who would later be behind the largest information leak in US’ intelligence history – would sit the foyer holding a Rubik’s cube.

We witness a thoughtful, articulate and surprisingly confident young man, who nonetheless take strict precautions.

This seems like something out of a James Bond film – and, similar to the way  the NOKAS-robbers supposedly were influenced by various «heist»-films, Snowden probably benefited from having watched the odd film with similar scenarios in order to plan such a secretive gathering. CITIZENFOUR does also feature elements of «techno-thriller», both in its expressions and gradual reveal of something akin to a plot by the US authorities. Worth noting in this connection is the film’s minimalistic, electronic score by Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor – who through his collaboration with David Fincher has established himself as a very interesting film composer. Following this initial meeting, Poitras and Greenwald spent eight intense days in Snowden’s hotel room, where they, along with Greenwald’s Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill, interviewed the US National Security Agency (NSA) defector about the extensive material he entrusted them. These sessions were filmed by Poitras, and account for the majority of her though-provoking and important film – awarded this year’s Academy Award for best documentary.

Access. Perhaps the most essential issue for a documentary maker is access to what you want to document. Laura Poitras was clearly allowed unprecedented access to both the main character and the events he set in motion, by virtue of her own substantial role in this historical leak. But the director’s undeniable talent for discrete observation and filmatic approach should not be excluded here. This is not least impressive when you consider that a large part of the film consisted of conversations which took place in a small hotel room. Not your typical «talking heads»-based, report-like documentary, CITIZENFOUR is instead an observational and, at times, a visually powerful film with the director positioned as the well-known fly on the wall. In the introduction, we are acquainted with Poitras background, and her first communication with the then anonymous Snowden. Through this, the film hits a suitably thriller note, before efficiently providing an insight into the current intelligence and surveillance landscape. We are introduced to speech excerpts by NSA whistle blower William Binney and Occupy Wall Street’s Jacob Appelbaum, plus a Senate hearing where the authorities deny they are operating the type of mapping of individuals’ communication later proved by Snowden’s documents. The cope of this mapping is shortly described through Greenwald and MacAskill’s questioning of him in his Hong Kong hotel room. The film features unique recordings of Snowden as he for the first time reveals the extensive material to the journalists – who then have to evaluate what should be made public. We witness a deep, articulate and surprisingly confident young man, who nonetheless take extreme precautions. For instance, he hides his computer underneath a blanket when using his password, in case it is picked up by any cameras. Over the course of these few days, Edward Snowden chooses to come forward worldwide, using his full name, through a video interview filmed by Poitras. Through these sequences, CITIZENFOUR becomes, to a certain degree, a portrait of the whistle blower, despite his insistence that it should not be about him. «I am not the story here, » is Snowden’s initial reply to the compulsory questions about his background and motives. He adds that he feels the media’s personal focus distracts from more urgent matters. It is hard to disagree, and you could to a certain degree claim that Snowdon’s persona in reality received just as much attention as the issues he reported. Simultaneously it is – ironically – almost impossible not to try to create a picture of who this man is, and his motivations, as you watch the recordings.  Notably, this does not detract from CITIZENFOUR as a fascinating film, nor from the focus on the severe privacy exploitation as the real issue here.

Snowden’s great escape. Poitras does not document Snowden’s dramatic Hong Kong escape, because she by that time had left for Berlin as she supposedly was followed. These events are, on the other hand, portrayed in the Dane Poul-Erik Heilbouth’s documentary Snowden’s Great Escape, which recently aired on NRK – and is thus naturally also available on its eponymous website. In this way, the film complements CITIZENFOUR, whilst simultaneously, through its more conventional approach, can be said to emphasise the purely filmatic qualities of Poitras’ film. Snowden’s Great Escape is a classic TV documentary featuring «talking heads», informative voice-overs and an illustrative use of archive material and reconstructions, which regardless provide an exciting insight into these dramatic events. Not least did Heilbouth gain access to a large number of central characters, from Snowden himself via WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison (who joined Snowden on his escape) and Julian Assange, to former CIA and NSA boss Michael Hayden. However, the film lacks both Poitras’ finely tuned aesthetics and her sharply observant gaze.

«I am not the story here. » Edward Snowden

Trilogy. CITIZENFOUR is the final instalment in Laura Poitra’s documentary trilogy on the USA after 9/11, which began with the aforementioned My Country, My Country. The second instalment was the 2010 The Oath, which portrayed Guantánamo and the US’ war on terror. However, despite the fact that it concludes the trilogy, CITIZENFOUR feels like the first chapter of a far greater story. Large swatches of the Snowden documents are still not public knowledge, and the latter part of the film depicts among other things how authorities continue to thwart the publication of these – by for instance forcing the Guardian to destroy computers which contained the leaked material. Further stories will no doubt surface in the future, from new whistle blowers inspired by Snowden’s actions. The last scene shows Greenwald and Poitras visit Snowden in his Moscow flat, where Greenwald describes an apparently weighty future leak – discretely communicated via handwritten notes which he tears up immediately afterwards. These revelations have not yet seen the light of day, indicating that the privacy fight has only just began. «We are creating the most powerful weapon of suppression in the history of humankind, yet those in power refuse accountability, » says Snowden in the film. This is a suitable recap of the impression you are left with after watching CITIZENFOUR. The film provides a worrying insight into how much information authorities have access to about its own, and other nations’, citizens, and is a crucial reminder that knowledge definitely is power. Both when gathering and spreading it.