WE ♥ DOCS
NYFF Review: Laura Poitras' Doc 'Citizenfour' is History in the Making
by Alex Billington
October 12, 2014
Along comes a documentary that may change your life by showing humanity in its most honest form. That documentary is called Citizenfour, with that title coming from the username Edward Snowden used to initially contact reporter/filmmaker Laura Poitras, who put this together over the last year. The footage she shows, the story she tells, it's as if they have captured lightning in a bottle. Citizenfour is like watching history unfold in front of your eyes, showing Snowden before and after he was revealed to the public as the whistleblower behind the NSA's mass surveillance conspiracy. Except it's not a conspiracy. It's out there, it exists, it's real. This documentary captures what happens when one person tries to tell the world the truth.
By now, most people are familiar with the story behind Edward Snowden and his escape after the United States government charged him with multiple espionage crimes. But it's actually not the real story. It's the story the media came up with, it's the story the public wanted and got, however when we get the chance to actually go back and look at what really happened in June of 2013, it's a very moving experience. There are human beings, people with emotions, with motivations, with genuine compassion, behind these stories and Citizenfour provides a very delicate look at that side of the situation. It reminds us that, while there are always untouchable political powers and bigger forces at play, all it takes is one person to change the world.
Citizenfour begins by introducing us to the United States after 9/11, and showing us how and why the NSA built the program that Snowden reveals. Then we meet Ed, as he likes to be called, the young whistleblower who has given himself completely to the idea that he is sacrificing everything (potentially his own freedom) to reveal the truth. I was concerned that it might be too pedantic in its presentation of details surrounding what's happening, explaining privacy to people who aren't concerned with it. But it's actually an incredibly smart, sensitive and heartfelt documentary that understands its audience as much as its subject. Even the way it shows emails with Snowden being decrypted is accurate and never overbearing, it all fits perfectly; it represents modern times and effortlessly understands how technology fits into and influences today's world.
What we, the audience, get to watch unfold is history as it's happening. The documentary really gets going when Poitras receives messages that indicate something might be coming, but only gets exciting when she finally meets Edward Snowden at a hotel in Hong Kong. He has already mapped out his plan to stay out of the country when the shit hits the fans. And that's the craziest part about Citizenfour - we're watching the shit hit the fan, we're actually seeing Snowden reveal (to reporters) the details for the very first time, then we see the reporters write up the story, then we see CNN finally reporting on it. Then we see what happens when Snowden is revealed, and why he wants to be revealed, and how that changes everything. Then it's the aftermath, the resulting media/political maelstrom that formed around Snowden as well as the implications.
The film exceeds on all levels because it is so expertly made by a filmmaker who can balance humanity with reality and storytelling. Director Laura Poitras takes the news and shows us the people behind the news, giving us a fascinating, jaw-dropping inside look at moments when history was made. Later these moments may be obscured, but in Citizenfour she reminds us that these moments are as important (if not even more important) than the results. She doesn't just tell one side of the story, she connects this story with time itself, with the world as it exists today and how it is being shaped by the very people on it. It's a remarkable achievement and
could should change the way the entire world looks at a key moment in modern history.
For me, I must admit that Citizenfour stirred up something deep. Everything about it connected with me in a profound way I wasn't expecting, with an invigorating and inspirational drive behind it, similar to Jehane Noujaim's extraordinary documentary The Square, showing that this is a story only just beginning. This is only just the start of it all. We don't know the end yet, we don't know what happens next, because we're still in the middle of it. Giving us a taste of the truth, showing how honesty can change the world, is one of the powerful ideas in the film, not to mention that people (e.g. whistleblowers) like Snowden aren't as malicious as the media makes them out to be. However, the greatest power of this film is the way it opens our minds, challenging us to think wider, deeper, more openly than before. You never know who can change the world.