The Power of Conscience in 'Citizenfour'

Edward Snowden doc reveals struggle in acting alone.

By Dorothy Woodend 29 Nov 2014 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

I have been waiting a long time to see Citizenfour. It was worth the wait.

Director Laura Poitras's film about Edward Snowden had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 10, 2014. It entered theatres not long after. I went to see it on the same day as a fundraiser for the Burnaby Mountain protesters opposing Kinder Morgan's expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. It turned out the two things had something in common.

Action undertaken in secret by government is the motivating factor that drives Edward Snowden to sacrifice his life as an ordinary person. It was an issue that came up again and again at the Burnaby Mountain event, as speaker after speaker talked about secret meetings, nondisclosure agreements and backroom deals between the Canadian government and large multinational corporations. Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan called it ''the invisible hand of the marketplace.'' That secret hand has become a little easier to spot, thanks in large part to the courage and defiance of ordinary people who feel it at the back of their shirt collars, frog-marching them to jail, or giving them a hard shove away from some invisible line in the dirt.

In the staid confines of the Law Courts Building in Vancouver, a crowd of all ages sang, spoke and read poems in support of the protest. It is easy to be brave when you are all together; it's much harder when you're alone. This became readily apparent as SFU professor Stephen Collis recalled keeping watch on Burnaby Mountain in the dark and the rain -- not knowing whether Kinder Morgan would show up, or what to do if they did. The pipeline protests have become much more lively since then. But change still requires those first steps: people acting almost entirely alone, with only the insistent prodding of their conscience.

The profoundly personal cost of taking action is rendered explicit in the story of Edward Snowden. Snowden's actions set into motion one of the biggest stories in recent history, but it started with one person, deciding to do the right thing, all by himself.

Meet America's most wanted

In many respects, Citizenfour is a simple film -- a three-act story that unfolds in what occasionally feels like real time. Director Poitras places it within the context of a trilogy of films about post-911 America. If you have not seen her earlier works, My Country, My Country and The Oath, I would urge you to seek them out. My Country, My Country is about the United States' role in the Iraqi elections, which secured Ms. Poitras a position on the highest threat rating of the Department of Homeland Securities' watch list. Her subsequent work, The Oath, centered around Abu Jandal, a taxi driver who worked as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

Citizenfour takes place a little closer to home.

Poitras had already begun work on a film about surveillance when she was contacted by email by someone calling him or herself Citizenfour. Poitras narrates this initial experience in her own voice, plainspoken and clear, detailing the journey that led to a hotel room in Hong Kong, where she met Edward Snowden. Over the course of eight days, as Poitras filmed the proceedings, journalist Glenn Greenwald and investigative reporter Ewen MacAskill interviewed Snowden about secret documents that detailed the extent of NSA surveillance of the American people. These scenes are the centrepiece of an extraordinary work that has the curious effect of making one almost complicit in the action. As Poitras wields her camera and sets up shots (you catch occasional glimpses of her in a hotel mirror), the film forces you to register the smallest of details, whether that's a tiny pimple on Snowden's face, or his cowlick of hair that refuses to lie flat.

Originally, the scope of Poitras's film had been much wider, involving WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in much more expansive fashion, as well as a number of other key players. The film's genesis is detailed in a recent New Yorker essay. When Poitras initially asked Snowden why he chose to contact her, he responded: ''You asked why I chose you. I didn't. You chose yourself.'' He goes on to state: ''My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back. No one, not even my most trusted confidante, is aware of my intentions, and it would not be fair for them to fall under suspicion for my actions. You may be the only one who can prevent that, and that is by immediately nailing me to the cross rather than trying to protect me as a source.''

In these first emails, Snowden may sound like an overly earnest graduate student. (At the time of the film's making, he was 29 years old.) Some of the callowness of youth is still there, in his demeanor and his obsession with getting his hair just right. But there is something else that is deeply familiar, even old fashioned about him -- like a character Jimmy Stewart might have played in an earlier age. Maybe it's the openness of his face, or the calm and detailed manner in which he tells his story, or even the somewhat goofy way he goes about maintaining a level of security (a pillow case dubbed ''the mantle of power'' is pulled over his head and laptop when an especially sensitive bit of information is imparted). Whatever it is, there is never a moment when you doubt his veracity, even as the wilder aspects of the story are detailed in what he describes as ''the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.''

Alone, together

The human element remains the central quality of the film. This is due to the efforts of the three principles at its centre, Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras, as they navigate the complexities of how best to break the revelations that the American government has been spying, not only on its own people, but just about everyone else in the world as well. (Later scenes in the film that reveal the NSA accessed private cell phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel are handled with a particularly dark humour.)

Initially, the complicity between Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras swirled around the technical aspects of the leaked documents. But that was before the discussion was concerned with not making Snowden the focal point of the story (which turned out to be somewhat moot). These conversations and all their digressions are captured by the clear eye of Poitras's camera, but something else also begins to occur. You, the audience member, begin your own careful surveillance of the action, noting the placement of moles on Snowden's neck, or the pattern of thinning hair on the top of Greenwald's head. One begins to feel almost like one of the surveillance drones that Snowden describes, patiently observing people and feeding that information back to some unnamed and anonymous collector.

Watching the film in the relative safety of a Vancouver movie theatre, I felt my hands grow cold with dread. Anxiety suffuses the entire film but nowhere is it quite as palpable as these long scenes in a bland hotel suite. While Snowden waits for the inevitable, for the large, shadowy presence that hovers at the edge of the proceedings to take notice and then to take action, you wait with him, sick to your stomach. A ringing telephone or a sudden fire alarm, even a pen snapping in two, are telegraphs some weird infectious form of paranoia.

I was tempted to yell at the screen, ''Get out of there, they're coming to get you!''

And then, almost before you know it, this brief stay of events is over. As images of Snowden the whistleblower were disseminated around the globe, things moved quickly. He is hustled away, by lawyers seeking support from the UN to allow him to stay in Hong Kong. At that point, the film goes dark, quite literally, as the only contact between the filmmaker and her subject takes places on a black computer screen.

Poitras maintained intermittent communication with Snowden as he spent weeks in a Russian airport after the US Government cancelled his passport. When Poitras, Greenwald and Snowden are finally reunited in another hotel room, this time in Moscow, the subsequent revelations are larger and more profound. The existence of another, even higher-placed whistleblower is written down on scraps of paper. Snowden goggles at the information as Greenwald tears the paper to shreds and piles it all on a coffee table. The only word that is clearly visible is POTUS.

Secrets everywhere

I left the theatre, jumpy and paranoid, looking at my cell phone with sudden and deep distrust. But the feeling that remained strongest after seeing the film was the need to tell the truth. It was a need that other people seemed to be feeling with the same sense of urgency. Big or small, secrets have a way of squirming to the surface, however hard governments or corporations are trying to bury them.

At a fundraiser for Burnaby Mountain, Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan spoke about the review of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain project, terming it a sham from the beginning. Even though the ''result was predetermined,'' he said, the process was undertaken with due diligence. The city of Burnaby asked 1,700 questions of Kinder Morgan and the National Energy Board, and stated that the city would abide by the process -- even as the courts saw fit to overturn the city's ability to enforce its own municipal bylaws.

Corrigan is a careful speaker and, as an ex-lawyer, he has deep knowledge of the judicial system. There was no denying the surprise in his voice as he described conversations that took place with the NEB that detailed no public interest, no public policy, nor any discussion about climate change or the best use of Canada's limited oil resources. In no uncertain terms Mayor Corrigan made it clear who stood to benefit and who stood to lose: ''The invisible hand of the marketplace, multinational corporations, will decide public policy for the Canadian people based on their economic interests. We cannot tolerate that reality.''

Union of BC Indian Chiefs President and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip also raised concern about policy changes taking place without any kind of public process. In his speech at the fundraiser, he made reference to the BC Liberals' efforts to change the Land Act, asking the BC First Nations Leadership Council to participate in closed-door consultations. The talks would require the Council to undertake a confidentiality agreement that would not allow for any discussion with their own constituents. Chief Phillip told the Liberals to take a flying leap.

When people no longer believe or trust in their own democratically elected government, you know something radical must take place. This could mean civil disobedience on a small scale, like getting arrested in a public park, or it could mean much riskier action -- like outing the secrets of a huge organization like the U.S. National Security Agency.

As Glenn Greenwald stated at the New York premiere of Citizenfour, even the biggest of stories often comes down to the conscience of one person. Said Mr. Greenwald: ''I always thought that the most powerful part of the story was not going to be the documents or the revelations, as important as those are. It was going to be the power of his story, the acts of this very ordinary young man who decided very consciously to sacrifice his whole life for a political principle.''

Sometimes you just have to tell the truth, no matter what the price.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Film

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