Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, Bill Binney, Jeremy Scahill
“It will be your decision as to whether or how to declare my involvement. My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back.”
“It’ll be sort of the internet principle of the hydra. You can stomp one person, but there’s gonna be seven more of us.” Edward Snowden speaks from a hotel room in Hong Kong, discussing the likely consequences of his coming out, making himself known as the man who’s leaked information concerning the NSA’s surveillance activities. He appears in close-up, utterly poised and impressively pale.
This pallor might have something to do with the fact that he’s been in a hotel room in Hong Kong for weeks. It’s also likely part of who he is, as well as lanky and intense and almost unnervingly brilliant. However Snowden comes by it, the effect of his near translucence is fascinating on screen, one of many aspects of Citizenfour that makes it hard to look away. Other aspects, of course, include what former National Security Agency contractor Snowden has to say, which is complex and thrilling, a twisting and turning story of how the US government spies on people.
He tells this story for three people in that hotel room, all knowing that the rest of us will hear it too, so long as they all make it out of Hong Kong with the footage. He hasn’t selected Laura Poitras, he says; she’s selected herself, by the previous work she’s done (this film is the third in her trilogy of post-9/11 America films, including My Country, My Country in 2006 and 2010’s The Oath), as well as by her willingness to respond to his initial queries in 2013, rendered under the name “citizenfour” and requiring all manner of encryption in order communicate, briefly, tentatively, and then, increasingly.
Their emails open the film, with Poitras reading to us. It turns out that Snowden tried first to go through Glenn Greenwald, then and now writing for the Guardian, but he was less initially inclined to go through citizenfour’s secrecy rubric, at least at first. (Poitras, by virtue of her own experience being monitored and detained by the US government, was already familiar with the practice.) By the time Snowden is writing to Poitras with instructions on where to find him in Hong Kong (“We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s Cube so you can identify me”), Greenwald’s coming along, and so is Ewan MacAskill, the Guardian‘s defense and intelligence correspondent. The guys ask the questions and plan their reporting, which pieces will come out when and where, while Poitras’ camera observes.
For all the daunting information Citizenfour reveals (including the existence of another NSA whistleblower, currently anonymous), this sort of observation is far more remarkable, in what it asks you to see. Sometimes, the film offers long, nearly meditative takes of exteriors, the Hong Kong hotel from afar, implacably shiny, or distant views of dully thunk-thunking machinery at a new NSA data collection facility under construction in Bluffsdale, Utah, and near film’s end, a long shot of a kitchen window, showing Snowden and his partner Lindsay Mills, in their for-now home in Moscow, quiet, ordinary, perfectly framed.
These observational moments invite you to fill in, to contemplate not just the fact of data collection, but also its labor and costs, the means by which NSA or any other official (or unofficial) agency might undertake its purpose. Your view of such apparent material reality offers a kind of correlative for the discreet work of Snowden and the journalists with him. Here and elsewhere, Citizenfour is exquisitely filmed and carefully reported, but its greatest effects have to do with what you don’t see, the plans and ambitions that underlie surveillance, the turning inside of democracy, and its slippery notions of trust or transparency. Conversations with another NSA whistleblower, William Binney, or current investigator Jeremy Scahill provide contexts, the understanding that none of this activity is new or, sadly, surprising.
Other observations seem more intimate, but they’re also as much about what you’re seeing and not seeing as about what’s on screen. Snowden’s face fills the frame for several of these scenes, his eyes focused on the TV screen where stories about him, stories not even approximate to the individual before you for the past hour or so, stories that target him, or gazing into the mirror where he re-sees himself, with newly colored hair, a vague disguise he adopts before leaving the hotel for a vehicle that may take him to a safe place.
Watching Snowden watch is revelatory. These long takes suggest a conventional form of intimacy, the sort of image that films use to solicit your sympathy or faith. But they do something else too, which is to reflect back on you, raising questions about how you see yourself, your social environment, your political assumptions. Your position matters here, more than you can know
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