director Laura Poitras
Laura Poitras’s documentary about Edward Snowden and his exposure of the U.S. government’s unprecedented spying on citizens won Best Documentary at the Oscars last Sunday. The film’s controversy around its production and relationship with Snowden, breaking his story journalistically, meeting with him in secret in Hong Kong to film him and learn what he had to reveal, helped to build the film’s reputation and notoriety. I was excited to see the film, myself.
Though touted as being as tense and dramatic as any fictional thriller, I’ll be honest and say that I found Citizenfour much more a slog than a nail-biter. While the story is utterly compelling and significant, the film focuses on Poitras’s introduction to Snowden through encrypted emails, coordination with other journalists, namely Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, and their covert connection in a Hong Kong hotel room, poring over encrypted stolen files, deciding what to publish, how to publish, and how to evade eventual arrest by the American authorities.
Snowden’s revelations are important. He’s a very smart man who had been given access to CIA and NSA data and data structures as a specialist in protecting, implementing and organizing the surveillance and data collection that the government began culling in earnest post-September 11, 2001. He found that numerous corporations colluded to share private data about citizens, utterly unrelated to concerns of any crimes, raising terrifying truths about information age privacy and freedom. His vantage and knowledge offered a perspective on this secret and its significance that many others probably would have a hard time getting their head around.
Frankly, it’s unsurprising. There is more data available in our world today about people and their practices than ever before. And a lot of it isn’t even hiding much less protected. It’s not hard to fathom governments or corporations or even really intelligent and motivated hackers gaining access to the mass, evolving algorithms to make sense of it all, to spy with cameras, credit cards, text messages, internet activity and knowing way more than anyone ever could have about someone, all someones. In fact, it’s almost inescapable.
Snowden’s exposure sheds light on the fact that the U.S. government (and other governments) actively spy on (essentially) everyone. It’s Orwellian in ways that Orwell could never have conceived, far more pervasive and extreme. And what does this really mean for us as private citizens? What is privacy in this day and age? And Greenwald and Snowden rightly raise concerns about what this signifies for “freedom”. This is all true, massively, massively true.
But this is one genie that will never be returned to its bottle.
Whether laws are passed or not, that the data exists, there are the technologists (or hackers) who can and will access it, cull it, expose it, use it, exploit it. The paranoia that Poitras and team are under is real. Snowden is wanted presently for crimes equated to treason. And this story, so important and newsworthy, is far from finished.
Like Bradley Manning’s leaks of classified government information, exposed by Wikileaks and Julian Assange, the role of internal whistleblowers and the press and their relationship to public knowledge and information really stands out for me here. Snowden approached the press because he wanted help sorting through what to share and what may not have been relevant. He wanted dedicated journalists to assess what he had uncovered to shape the message and release of information. This I think helps to justify the Snowden and his goals. Like Daniel Ellsburg before them, there is great relevance in finding out what goes on behind the closed doors of the government, and surely the government would like to keep the public out, branding its exposers as traitors and the information released as a great risk to national security.
Where Manning was a very low-level cog in the information machine, though with still very intensive access, Snowden was an expert, a consultant, whose access depth was necessary to delve into the works and workings and goals of the machine. His understanding of what he saw and what he chose were much more sophisticated and all the more damning and deep in what it revealed.
Frankly, I think Citizenfour is important as part of the story of unveiling these truths, but I would say that it’s not as compelling or dramatic as many would have you think. It will be interesting to see where it falls as history unfolds, in what it documented and what it tells as this becomes part of the greater story of our time. It’s a good documentary, but more than anything, it’s about a very relevant and important subject.
Do I think that Snowden or Manning are traitors? Not in the greater sense of what that implies. Surely they had access to information that they had levels of clearance for and which they knew were criminal to release. I haven’t seen the data Snowden released, merely have heard it encapsulated. It’s massive, the amount of it. Was some of it more dangerous than others? I don’t know. You wouldn’t know from watching Citizenfour.
I think the revelations are important. What they signify is an immense truth about the modern age in ways that we are all too naive about unless we consider them, know of them. I think the vigilant folks that fight for our rights, freedoms, and privacy are in many stripes, on the front lines and even on different sides.