In January 2013, Laura Poitras started receiving anonymous encrypted e-mails from "CITIZENFOUR," who claimed to have evidence of illegal covert surveillance programs run by the NSA in collaboration with other intelligence agencies worldwide. Five months later, she and reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill flew to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who turned out to be Edward Snowden. She brought her camera with her. The resulting film is history unfolding before our eyes.Written by
Director Laura Poitras edited the film in Germany after flying directly there from Hong Kong with the Snowden footage, to prevent the FBI from showing up with a search warrant for her hard drives. See more »
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"Oh what joy, in the open air freely to breathe again!"
Citizenfour begins in a tunnel with dim overhead tubing. The scene is disorienting for we don't know exactly where we are.
A.O. Scott of the Times suggests that Laura Poitras' tightly edited documentary might presage a "dystopian allegory." It might also represent a birth canal through a new born will emerge.
And then suddenly bright sunshine bursts into view. For, the exciting first scenes of Citizenfour promises the same exhilaration of freedom that Beethoven's opera Fidelio's "Prisoners Chorus" as prisoners emerge from the bowels of prison, into the light of day and gleefully sing "Oh what joy, in the open air freely to breathe again!" Monday, June 3, 2013 is the day the world of the National Security Council (and other intelligence agencies) secrecy metaphorically died as Edward Snowden let loose on the world the dirty little secrets that the US government, through the abuse of "spyware" was keeping tabs globally of the private thoughts of nearly everyone, regardless of caste or class. Dramatically, Poitras builds tension, as a voice off the screen, muted in tone and pitch—the better to create a sense of balance, in a documentary that has already been attacked for being partisan—through the use of the first e-mails Snowden began contact with her, as the text flashes in black and write across the screen in an old fashioned Hollywood spy caper.
More, she gives immediate substance to her viewers of what encryption is o outwit government hackers as in the following frames messages are quickly made readable in standard English. Not only that, this cinematic technique provides something graspable to the average Joe or Jane of, perhaps, cryptography and mega-data that are used daily in print or on television with endless repetition that might simply remains meaningless. So, Citizenfour also seeks to show the ordinary citizen the means of government intercepting Internet, tapping the telephone, sweeping billions of personal messages a day out of the public's view and behind closed doors.
Even through Snowden's exposure of abuses of "powers that be, with the connivance of corporations continue to disregard the constitutional and legal safeguards that protect US citizens from arbitrary rule.
Citizenfour is a film about the whistle blower Edward Snowden. Although we might think we know the man, Poitras' documentary introduces to Snowden in the flesh: a man who has risked his life and freedom to expose the American government's perversion of its democratic vocation and of conspicuous misuse of power. He comes across as a thoughtful young man, then 29, of substance, well centered and at peace with himself.
For eight days in Snowden's room in Hong Kong's Mira Hotel, Poitras filmed the conversations he had with Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian's defense and intelligence correspondent Ewan MacAskill patiently answering questions and with the patience of a teacher explaining the ins and outs of the deceitful spying that the NSA with the cooperation of friendly governments.
Her camera captured the former Booz Allen analyst on loan to the NSA who had no intentions of hiding his identity. Worried about Washington's vendetta to use the 1917Espionnage Act against whistleblowers exposing government malfeasance, Snowden left the US to sound the alarm of the oppressive control of the American spy agencies on the lives of ordinary citizens.
And if Snowden is crystal clear of anything, he is careful not to unnecessarily outing operatives, nor exposing them to bodily harm.
"Pin the target on my back," "nail me to the Cross," he says to Poitras, as he openly tells her that he is assuming full responsibility for leaking highly classified documents, not unlike the pope announcing urbi ed orbi his message od good will on New Year's.
Citizenfour, a last minute addition, kicked off the 2014 New York International Film Festival, as a character study of Edward Snowden, that Festival director called "icily chilling." For Stewart Klawans, Citizenfour is a "character necessary character study," to counter the campaign "to distract people from the substance of Snowden's revelations that predictably, entailed an effort to disparage him as a person."
And the film has become the object of attacking a person's character or motivations rather than a reasoned argument that Poitras' film presents. Simply look no further than Citizenfour's cast of characters—Snowden, Greenwald, Poitras, William Binney, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill and Macaskill and The Guardian—all whistle blowers who have not shied away from exposing government and private industry deceptions and corruption.
So far, it looks as though Citizenfour is a strong contender for an Oscar in the best documentary category. Still, the spotlight is not on Snowden but MacArthur genius winner, George Polk and Pulitzer Prize recipient Poitras.
Her talent is obvious, so the coverage has hardly a hint of faint praise. Nonetheless, critics on Slate and Daily Beast see the chinks in her cinematic armor, and even The New Yorker's George Packer remains skeptical of what they see as Poitras' "advocacy journalism," riddled with simplification and broad generalizations.
She has become the handy scapegoat since Snowden is out of government's harm's way, living in perfect domesticity in Moscow, with his longtime companion, whom he thought he lost forever.
Although she like Greenwald and nameless millions if not billions will forever be under permanent US surveillance, Citizenfour is a strong antidote to our government's campaign to besmirch Snowden, Poitras and company who performed the daring act, in the case of unfettered US spying to say "the emperor is wearing no clothes." The strength of Poitras documentary lies in honesty and her sense of moderation and fair play: moral goodness that the talking heads will continue to attack and demean. And try as they might, thanks to Snowden the cat is out of the bag on the NSA. And yet, alas, the spying goes on., without a vigorous citizen countervailing force to blunt our government's abuse of power and rendering democracy a hollow shell.
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