by Rosie Frost
In this tense, almost thriller-like documentary by Laura Poitras, we are taken behind the scenes into the world of investigative journalism and whistle blowing, which at times feels more like a Hollywood film than real life.
The film is told from the perspective of Poitras, as she is contacted by an anonymous member of the intelligence community: ‘CitizenFour’. He is revealed to be Edward Snowden, the intelligence analysis at the NSA who blew the lid on what he described as “the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.” He is talking of course, about the massive and illegal expansion of state surveillance since 9/11, which now includes all digital communications, card transactions and other meta-data collecting services of all people, irrespective of whether they are under suspicion or not.
The most substantial section of the film, the scenes of Snowden meeting Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel room, feel quite surreal. I remember when it was revealed that Snowden was the leak, when the whole world knew he was hauled up in a hotel somewhere in Hong Kong and no one was quite sure where or what would happen – being able to witness this historic occasion from the inside felt like a privilege.
Poitras expertly builds tension in this film, with the extracts of code and email communications with Snowden. Moments such as the first meet and the destruction of the files at the Guardian after the government had requested them feel like a spy film, and really help the viewer to understand the severity of Snowden’s situation and the surveillance that is on all of us.
A film like this inevitably brings a lot of focus on Snowden himself, however much he might say he doesn’t want it. I felt that Poitras did a good job of not being overly intrusive – there is enough of Snowden discussing his motives and enough access to get to know him as a character, but she does not for example, interview his girlfriend. As a viewer, I wanted to know her and how she felt, but I can also acknowledge that that sort of coverage turns the narrative into a soap opera – the focus instead is on the surveillance, as it should be.
My only criticism would be that the film feels a bit confused about its direction – the middle section of fly-on-the-wall filming of Snowden is book-ended by typical documentary style interviews, and films of long speeches in conferences which complete contrast from the previous moods. Whilst the information shared in these sections are key to understanding the extent of the surveillance, I would say that perhaps there is too much of it.
However, CitizenFour is indeed made in a restrained, respectful way. Any feeling of ‘this is like a movie’ is created by us – Poitras does not over sensationalise. Watching the documentary brings home what a colossal operation the NSA surveillance programme is, how dangerous it is, but also that people are fighting against it.