In January 2013 Laura Poitras received an email that would change her life forever. The email was from an anonymous stranger who had taken note of Poitras latest film project on surveillance in the USA. He requested a secure link for which they could communicate through and insisted she had strong pass phrases, strong enough to withstand a brute-force attack by networked computers. “Assume that your adversary is capable of a trillion guesses per second,” the stranger wrote. That stranger would turn out to be the single greatest whistleblower in American history, Edward Snowden.
This is how Laura Poitras’s latest documentary begins. A series of emails encrypted in masses of binary unfolds on a computer screen and it soon turns into hotel rooms, journalists, court rooms and a global media frenzy. Over the course of 114 minutes Poitras makes this documentary rumble with the energy of nervous revelation. Poitras is a filmmaker at the height of her powers, in tune with the world she exists in, and well aware of the danger that lurks in the shadows of the American surveillance agencies. Citizenfour is not only a triumph for documentary makers, but for journalism too.
At the heart of the documentary is how Poitras witnessed the whistleblowing events unravelling, through her own eyes. We see Snowden as a man burdened by the weight and gravitas of his situation, but also the determination of the man to bring, what he sees as a violation of the publics civil liberties, to light. During one scene Snowden is giving an interview to The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, when he receives a call from hotel room service, despite having no contact with the front desk. His eyes light up as he examines the hotel phone and he yanks the cable from the wall claiming that the latest phones have tiny computer chips that can be used as transmitters to listen into his conversation. At first his claims seem outlandish, but its his delivery of these facts, of NSA programmes, the detail he provides, that makes you realise his claims are chilling accurate. At one stage he even claims that employees at the NSA can watch drone attacks on a live feed to their computers and you realise the scale of the surveillance Snowden is revealing here, and it lies far beyond anyone’s imagination.
Since June 2013, Snowden has been a mystery to the world, often painted by the media as an arrogant, reckless hacker who risked a nation’s security and people are understandably curious about his motives. Poitras’ efforts to change people’s minds about Snowden, may have come to late. But the Snowden who Poitras shows – hair tousled, resisting his attempts at styling it – is determined, sincere and human. She gives him the dignity that the American media stripped him of.
In one scene Poitras humanises the media perception of Snowden as he tells Poitras, Greenwald and MacAskill that he wants journalists to decide what ought to be public. He is possessed with an uncanny calm as he is about to become forever targeted. Yet Snowden’s eyes swell and his calm posterior fades as he struggles to come to terms with then burden he is placing on his family and girlfriend
The film ends of a new bombshell. Greenwald and Poitras travel to see Snowden in his new part-time asylum of Russia, with news of a breaking story. Greenwald reveals through fragments of information that are shown to camera, that Snowden’s actions have inspired more whistleblowers, who are willing to come forward and reveal the extent of national surveillance. Snowden is stunned into silence by the information.
Citizenfour is a remarkable piece of film. It is packed with questions about how we ignorantly go about our lives unaware of the systems that shape and restrain our society. Poitras film is fearless, like the whistleblower himself, it announces itself and says this is what happened, this is what the public have a right to know. Quite simply, this film is a must watch.