By Philip Benton @paolobento
Edward Snowden and his revelations about the NSA’s surveillance activities were one of (if not the) stories of 2013. The first meeting in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald was documented by filmmaker Laura Poitras, which provides the main backdrop for the film.
The title ‘Citizenfour’ comes from the username chosen by Snowden to contact Poitras when he raises his initial concerns over what he perceives as the US government spying on its citizens. Poitras already had a high profile for her mistrust of the US government post 9/11 after her Academy Award nominated film ‘My Country, My Country’ and ‘The Oath’ which spoke about life for Iraqis under American occupation.
Laura Poitras’ storytelling is particularly powerful in this documentary, as she manages to play out the events in a compelling way which keeps the viewer on tenterhooks throughout the film despite many already aware of the end result. What really struck me whilst watching the film is how genuinely shocking some of the information which Snowden divulges is and in fact real-life rather than the work of a spy thriller author.
Whether or not you feel Edward Snowden is a hero or a villain, the film’s portray of his journey throughout is a fascinating one. From providing seemingly professional step-by-step instructions at the beginning of how to identify himself, he then goes on to proclaim how “he hasn’t interacted with the media before, and thus not sure how this works”. Poitras manages to perfectly capture the sense of enormity of what Snowden is doing (and leaving behind) with the few moments he has alone to reflect before his whole life changes forever.
The uniqueness of the situation is not lost on the other key characters in the film with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald in particular having a pivotal role to play. It is without doubt the scoop of his journalist career but having been entrusted with such classified information, crossing international borders becomes difficult for not only himself but his partner David Miranda too.
The whole film has a harrowing feel to it with the US and UK governments painted in an unfavourable light, perhaps understandably with Poitras opting to finish editing in Berlin upon fears her source material would be seized by the government inside the US.
Despite the difficulties of filming Snowden when in hiding, the film doesn’t lose its pace with Poitras able to capture the challenges of fleeting communication with Snowden and if anything adding to the drama until their final meeting in Moscow.
Citizenfour is a captivating documentary film offering a unique insight into the passage of a whistle-blower and the subsequent difficulties faced by the media of how and when to release such delicate but imperative information to the general public. The paranoid among you may be unwilling to switch your phone back on upon the closing credits but a worthwhile watch nonetheless.
Find a screening of ‘Citizenfour’ near you now https://citizenfourfilm.com/screenings