Snowden always said that he didn’t want what he was saying to be about him. In revealing the information on the existence of mass surveillance programs conducted by the US, he said he wanted to ignite a public debate about what the American government was doing in the name of democracy and the security of the American people.
Ironically then, having a documentary focused on him seems to be contradictory. Citizenfour is a documentary made by Laura Poitras. Along with Glenn Greenwald, she is one of the two journalists that Snowden reached out to before he left his position working as an IT analyst in the government.
The film consists primarily of a series of conversations over 8 days in Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong in May 2013. He speaks with Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from the Guardian and explains what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and asks for their help as journalists, since they are the ones who will ultimately share the information he has provided through their reporting. The documentary has an informal, home video feel to it, which contrasts with the seriousness of the issues he is discussing. Unexpected interruptions in the form of fire alarms going off and phone calls on the hotel landline heighten this tension, as Snowden is concerned about being picked up by police or American authorities before the stories break. Although it seems that he’s a bit weirdly paranoid, as subsequent events have shown, he was right in being careful given the powerful implications of the information he shared with the world.
Snowden has been criticized as a traitor and lauded as a whistleblower. In the film, Snowden comes across as an articulate, thoughtful and principled man who has thought through his actions and the consequences of his actions for himself. His concern is mainly for his loved ones, his girlfriend and his family, who face questioning about his whereabouts during the time that he is in Hong Kong.
The documentary is a kind of a historical record, marking a particular moment in time. It is the visual accompaniment to Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide (2014), which covered the same events from his perspective. It’s a cliché, but the book is better than the film, which drags a bit sometimes. In retrospect though, both the film and the book were just the preface because the actual story is what happened later, after the Snowden material became the Snowden revelations.
In the end, the point is not Snowden, even though it is easy to focus on the individual. The point is the debate he opened up by pulling back the curtain and revealing how power works. He revealed the hypocrisy of the American government as it scrambled to publicly justify the intrusive machinery of mass surveillance in the name of making the post 9/11 world safer. The question he raised is who do American citizens need to be protected from the most? It may not be “the terrorists,” but their own government when it abuses the power it was elected to uphold.
Citizenfour is a 2014 documentary film directed by Laura Poitras, concerning Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal. The film received critical acclaim upon release, and was the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars.