Front Row at the Movies
Edward Snowden Is "Citizenfour"
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
No doubt the NSA knew Laura Poitras was making this documentary. After all, that’s what this film is about: NSA’s surveillance programs.
You’ve heard all those stories about Edward Snowden, the low-level high-school-dropout consultant who blew the whistle on the government’s snooping. And you either think he’s an American hero or a traitor hiding out in Russia. But what you know is from what you’ve been told by the media – pro and con.
Now hear the words straight from Snowden’s mouth and make a more informed assessment about this guy who first identified himself to Poitras as Citizenfour.
Why Poitras? She’d already made two films about government intrusion – "My Country, My Country" (2006) and "The Oath" (2010).
In January 2013, she was working on a film about post-9/11 abuses of national security when she started receiving encrypted emails from this Citizenfour, claiming to have evidence of NSA’s spying on Americans.
At first he remained anonymous, refusing a face-to-face meeting. But Poitras insisted, saying, "I really want to meet you, and I want to bring my camera." And he responded, "No, I’m not the story. It should be about the issues."
With Poitras’s reassurances, he finally relented. So she flew to Hong Kong along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill to meet this Deep Throat, who turned out to be Edward Snowden.
"Once my camera came out in Hong Kong, everyone knew that was going to happen. And nobody asked me to stop. This was a pretty extraordinary set of circumstances. I think he didn’t know day-to-day what would happen to him, and how he would get through this time. So it was kind of an all-in moment. He’d taken so many risks that the camera just became another part of it."
Greenwald and MacAskill quizzed Snowden as he sat there in his room at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong. Camera rolling, he told his story.
"He’s been totally consistent in that he feels these things should not be secret," Poitras says. "If the government is going to do this, then the public has a right to know."
With Snowden supplying them with classified documents, Glenn Greenwald broke the story in The Guardian in June 2013.
Thanks to some skillful editing and the backing of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich," "The Informant!"), Laura Poitras went on to produce "Citizenfour," the tell-all that’s currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
"I come out of the tradition of cinema verite, where you follow events as they unfold before your eyes, in real time. And when you do, you get all the drama and uncertainty that comes along with life," explain Poitras. "In this case, going to Hong Kong and being in the room with Snowden … this is a person at the point of absolute no return. It has inherent drama. He’s made these decisions that have brought him to this point. So why would somebody make this choice, and what are their motivations, and how can you cope with that kind of stress? All those things are allowed to become part of the film."
So where does Ed Snowden come out in this film? As pretty much human. "Yes, this is a film about NSA and surveillance," nods Laura Poitras. "But it’s also a film about humans — about people who take great personal risks. How do they do that, and what are the consequences?"