Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: OSCAR-winning Documentary 'CitizenFour'

by Alex McKirgan

Shortly after winning the OSCAR for Best Documentary last Sunday, Laura Poitras' documentary CitizenFour was shown on Channel 4 on Wednesday. 

The documentary is an engrossing and tension-filled as any episode of Homeland and follows the story of NSA contractor Edward Snowden's disclosure of secret NSA surveillance programmes from his initial contact with film-maker Poitras, through eight days of meetings in Hong Kong, to a final series of meetings in Snowden's asylum base in Moscow. 

There are so many spy-movie cliches in the film that you have to keep reminding yourself that this is a documentary. When instructing Poitras how to identify him in the Hong Kong hotel lobby, Snowden tells her to ask him "What time does the restaurant open?"; he would reply, "I don't know but I'll show you where the bar is". As Snowden is logging on to his laptop to transfer the stolen files to a memory stick, he covers his head with a blanket so that no-one in the room or on film can see his password. He also points out that the VOIP phones used in most hotels can easily be listened to, even if the receiver is down. 

The emails between Snowden, Poitras and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald are revealed to us as they are typed on to a blank screen against a soundtrack of dark, tension-filled chords to dramatic effect. Snowden's description of the surveillance programmes is spliced into Congressional testimony by CIA and NSA officials (Generals Tapper and Alexander), who categorically deny the existence of the very activities that Snowden has just described. 

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald,
in a Hong Kong hotel room (scene from CitizenFour)
During one of the more sensitive interviews, the hotel fire alarm keeps going off every thirty seconds. It is a very dramatic scene. The camera focuses on the faces of Snowden and Greenwald as they try to process whether this is some type of security operation. Snowden then tells Ewan McCaskill, from Britain's Guardian newspaper, that the GCHQ surveillance programme in the UK (called Tempora) is the most comprehensive in the world. 

Unlike the various revelations by Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Snowden is very clear from the beginning that he doesn't want the story to be about him. He clearly has sincerely held doubts about the legality and constitutionality of the NSA surveillance programmes and insists that the source of the leaks is not disclosed in the early articles in the Guardian as it may take away from the importance of the message. 

While Assange et al think that all information should be public, there are good arguments for governments to be able to keep sensitive security information secret, but the film shows a perfect example of someone breaking the law in the greater public interest. Given the stonewalling in the Congressional testimony, I doubt that we would ever have known about these programmes without Snowden's revelations. 

Everyone recognises the need to collect information to prevent future terrorist attacks, but there have clearly been no limits to, or effective controls on, the ability of governments in the US and UK to collect unlimited amounts of every kind of data. There is now a wide-ranging discussion about the right balance between security and privacy, and for this we owe a debt of gratitude to a bespectacled IT nerd who is now exiled in Moscow. 

This is a brilliant, dramatic and scary film that tells us a lot about how our societies are changing. Everyone should see it. 

CitizenFour is available via catchup on 4oD.

1 comment:

  1. The scariest thing you'll see this Halloween is Edward Snowden swearing in disbelief at the end of Laura Poitras' gripping, disturbing documentary.

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