Friday, December 5, 2014
CITIZENFOUR - a Lauren Poitras film on NSA, Snowden & Greenwald
Laura Poitras points out at the start this is the third film in a series of works looking at post-9/11 policies, previously about the Iraq war, that have made large problems for the country/the world. Citizenfour does do that as well, in a way, but the root cause of the NSA surveillance issues are only mentioned briefly by a speaker who talks at a conference about what went down for him in the intelligence community a week after 9/11. At the time that directive was: start spying, now, on everyone, ASAP. It took time, but when Edward Snowden, the (secret) protagonist of this story, came to the conclusion that what he's been put to task to perpetuate in his organization is just wrong, and it's been a long time coming. Potras sees this as a continuation of this post-9/11 quagmire that America has gotten into, and then, by proxy, the rest of the world.
The bottom line from this, whether you like it or not (why you'd particularly like it is anyone's guess), is that the government, particularly the NSA through a rigorous computerized system, has been looking at Americans - and people across the world's - records for years. What to find exactly? Anything, really, and of course the excuse is that it's to find any terrorist connections. At the end of this film, which has gone from over a year and a half when Snowden first contacts Poitras and by proxy Guardian journalist Glen Greenwals, to mid 2014 when Greenwald shows Snowden that 1.2 million Americans have been spied upon (for certain) and the chain of command goes back to Obama, it's clear it's about fear and the almighty word - control - trumping freedom of speech.
The power of Poitras' film is that she explores what all of this has in terms of consequences and conflicts for the public at large - not just America but, as we also see, Brazil, Germany, and, we find most of all thanks to Tempora, the UK - in a unique way. This isn't a 'talking heads' style documentary, at least how we usually see it. Normally a story like this would have a group of people, in interview fashion talking to a person off-screen (maybe the director or whoever) giving the details of the story in past-tense about this or that. Poitras could have done that, ala Gibney's Wikileaks doc from not too long ago.
What she does instead, as the one person with a camera (or cameras) on the inside, during the interviews with Snowden and Greenwald in China, hours on end in that little hotel room in China, waiting, typing, watching TV... it's not even fly-on-the-wall filmmaking exactly, though there is that aspect to it. What is so outstanding is that all of this is taking place in present tense, one thing to the next, from the first communications from 'Citizenfour' to Poitras (who, due to her previous work, has put her on Snowden's radar) to the setting-up of the interviews, to shooting those over the course of a few days, the first leaks of information, the setting-up of what will come with revealing the identity, the reveal, the media pandemonium, Snowden's escape, and then what happens for this filmmaker and the journalist(s) and even the pro-bono lawyers and conferences on these across the world after this. It really moves more like a thriller - it's remarked at one point this is the fodder for a modern 'John Le Care' spy story - and we're watching this every step of the way, down to the smallest (but always crucial) texts and conversations between the three players.
I don't feel like I being always *told* why this is important; like a powerful storyteller should, especially for a story as dynamic and all-encompassing-important as this in the world we're still living in, I was *shown* what's going on and could decide for myself. This isn't to say that Poitras and her team don't get some scenes that mean to hammer the point home about how wrong all this surveillance s*** is; we see an OWS meeting where who's being spied upon already is the topic; we see a former analyst (noticeable for missing one leg) testifies about how this has been going on for so long, and Snowden just made it louder to the public. Stylistically, this all moves more like an actual dramatic, fictional story - albeit with people talking in rooms - cut together with the person talking, the other people listening, shots outside that emphasize the vastness of a citiscape like Hong Kong, and little visual things like mountains and the lights of a tunnel - akin to a stream of information across computer lines. But it's all real.
Snowden himself is fascinating to watch, too. He may be tense on the inside, but he has a mostly cool exterior, and perhaps he is calm enough. Or, with his background and how much time he's had to work everything out, he's rational to how this process was going to unfold. A little moment here or there may seem odd - like how he puts a red shirt over him as he types something, so, you know, he won't be watched - but it all builds up over the course of the film. By a certain point he's not on screen anymore, as he's in hiding in Russia, but his presence is still felt very strongly as Greenwald does his press, the fall-out continues, and lawyers discuss how the 'Espionage Act' is so crucial here to Snowden's troubles.
Some of this may not be new to you. For me, some of it was, some of it wasn't. I don't think Poitras' really cared about that, at least to the extent that she couldn't help people knowing the information already out there (this isn't, you know, a SMALL story after all). But this is a document of raw, intense dramatic power, how words and actions count, and not from this one guy - he says he wants it to be about the information and this surveillance program - but by the 'powers that be'. This is meant to last five, ten, twenty years from now, as a document of what happened, in real time, and it works first and foremost as well shot, well edited, well timed and paced dramatic filmmaking. You could have this subject matter by someone looking to puff everything up, and that's not what's done here.
Citizenfour is better than that. And it leaves you shaken, disturbed, and maybe a little paranoid too. And it's presented unlike any other film, fiction or documentary, this year.