Last night I saw the documentary CitizenFour by Laura Poitras. The film is subtle yet compelling. The opening sequence begins in a dark tunnel, lights passing overhead, a female voice – Poitras – reads an email she has received from a senior intelligence source who we learn later is Edward Snowden.
Her voice is soft and filled with the sadness knowledge brings. Faded fairytales and carefree ignorance replaced with realisation: of what our world actually is as opposed to what we thought or wanted it to be.
There is haunting footage of the physical manifestations of industrial surveillance. White birds fly over a bleak landscape of dirt and desert, bulldozers biting out chunks of earth, a blank cube takes shape. Poitras began filming at the start of the National Security Agency’s construction of a massive data center in Utah. Equally haunting are the white bubbles of listening dishes in the English countryside of Menwith Hill.
The first part of the film sets up her early knowledge of surveillance. She was put on a watch list by the American government after making a film about the Iraq War. She was stopped by US Border guards almost every time she entered her country. She was questioned. Her electronic items were seized. She had no idea why and no way to find out.
In his early emails to her, Snowden writes:
You ask why I picked you. I didn’t. You did. The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern sigint system works.
From now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. Your victimization by the NSA system means that you are well aware of the threat that unrestricted, secret abilities pose for democracies. This is a story that few but you can tell.
Senior officials from US intelligence services give testimony under oath that there is no bulk interception or collection of Americans’ communications. There is a wonderful scene filmed in the 9th Circuit Court where digital rights lawyer Kevin Bankston argues that his clients (AT&T customers) have a right to bring a case against the NSA for its bulk interception of call data. The NSA lawyer tries to claim that because all calls are intercepted, the client does not have a valid case, and even if he did, an open courtroom is not the appropriate place to settle such complaints.
‘I’m not sure I see what role there is for the judiciary in your proposal,’ says a white-haired judge. ‘It sounds like you want us to simply get out of the way.’
Later revelations make it clear that’s exactly what is desired.
The heart of the film is Poitras’s meeting with Edward Snowden in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, June 2013. Here Glenn Greenwald comes to the fore as the reporter whose task it became to translate Snowden’s cache of data into stories for The Guardian newspaper. Greenwald has often struck me as more idealist than journalist, keen to ignore inconvenient truths if they get in the way of a political worldview (e.g. glossing over Julian Assange’s moral bankruptcy). But in the film the reporter comes across as thoughtful, smart, independent and brave. Exactly the sort of journalist you’d want fighting your corner.
I love the expression on Greenwald’s face when Snowden puts on his ‘mantel of power’ to hide his hands typing a password. It’s such a fantastic ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment. Then Snowden gets down to telling Greenwald about the various programs the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have built to collect bulk communications data on citizens. The most invasive systems in the world are from Britain, Snowden says. ‘The NSA love Tempora,’ he says. It’s a “full take system”, unconstitutional in the US but the Brits can do it and hand over all the data to the Americans.
Once the news stories are published, the discussion in the hotel room turns to Snowden’s safety. He is adamant he doesn’t want to ’skulk in silence’ like other whistleblowers. He and Greenwald talk through the options of remaining anonymous or going public and they soon settle on going public as the best option. It’s the best way to give a big “fuck you” to the overbearing surveillance state.
It’s a powerful decision and you have to admire the audacity and bravery of it. After the circus side-shows of Assange, Snowden is the real deal. A man of conscience, acting on his values.
Poitras, too, made a brave and audacious decision to follow the story of state surveillance wherever it took her. In the words of her colleague Jeremy Scahill, “This boils down to the power of one woman’s camera against the entire national security state.”
Never let it be said one woman can’t make a difference.
The film opens Friday, October 24th 2014. Check the official CitizenFour website for screenings.