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.
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