“One of humanity’s prime drives is to understand and be understood.”—Buckminster Fuller
As a college professor teaching introductory non-fiction filmmaking classes, I spend a lot of time helping students generate ideas and identify the subjects for their work. For first-time filmmakers this can be an exhaustive process. With tastes informed by their consumption of pop culture, they know what they want their film to look and sound like, but they don’t know what they want to say. I begin with a discussion about privileged access. As a viewer, I want to understand something new, “who or what do you have access to that no one else does?”
Citizenfour s the ultimate fulfillment of that question, and Laura Poitras—the film’s director—has spent her life, both professionally and personally, positioning herself to have that access. This isn’t VIP access to celebrities, but admission into the lives of real people, and their trust to have themselves recorded by her, Her most recent film documents Edward Snowden’s efforts to reveal illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA).
In June 2013, Snowden arranges to meet Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, in order to hand over classified documents gathered at his job with the NSA. Citizenfour primarily consists of those days in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room.
Compared to when film was shot on actual film and there was no internet distribution, filmmaking has become a far more approachable art form. There’s a sense that anyone can do it. The tools are affordable and user-friendly. There’s dozens of free online tutorials on lighting an interview or storyboarding your documentary. Movies almost seem easy to make.
And, Citizenfour validates that attitude. Poitras shoots in an informal way; there’s nothing flashy or dramatic in her visual style. Noting the long takes, accentuated by focus adjustments and awkward pauses, simple graphics and occasional news footage, a student might even say, “I could do that.” But part of what makes Citizenfour so unnerving is the contrast between this fluid, accessible, directorial style and the unsettling reality of its content.
Yes, “anyone” with a decent camera and mic could have made this film, but only Poitras did. She was the only one whom Snowden trusted for this delicate job. While Snowden went about revealing these secrets through journalists, handing over these documents to the journalists, and then the public, he wanted the process documented by a sympathetic eye. Poitras documented the process.
Poitras has been emphasizing under-reported and anti-establishment stories in her documentation of post 9/11 America. Her work has lead to her repeated detainment at airports—the confidential nature of her footage has resulted in her decision to edit outside of the United States. Snowden chose her because she shares his own fears about a surveillance state. I didn’t learn anything new about the NSA or their vast spying enterprise that was the news of 2013. What I did see was a new kind of relationship and trust that must be cultivated between the filmmaker and her subject. That shared risk and fear of retribution created a bond between them, and the resulting footage resonates with the intimacy of that mutual experience. There’s an adrenaline in the room; we wonder what the personal cost will be to Snowden, and to Poitras herself, for being part of releasing such a massive trove of confidential and damning information. There’s a sense that they are in it together.
Some suspicious part of me also wondered if Citizenfour was just an extension of a selfie. Had Poitras really gotten the ultimate scoop, or just been roped in to holding up the lens for Snowden to show the world what it looked like to be in his shoes? While he claimed to have no personal ambition, by now, among the general public, Snowden is more famous than the documents and data he exposed. Whether you judge or sympathize, you know him. He is public figure. Poitras is a key player in making that happen. Her camera validates the choices Snowden and Greenwald made and her presence in that hotel room confirms how important their voices are.
As I watched Citizenfour I craved some image of Poitras herself. Snowden engages with her directly. Even as he understands that her lens represents millions of viewers, it is her that he interacts with in that room, speaking and looking directly at her. I wanted that camera to turn around and show me who’s perspective I was inhabiting. Poitras stays behind the camera and all we hear is her voice reading the messages she and Snowden exchange behind this bright, sterile hotel room.
In the film Snowden talks about how the press will want to quench their curiosity about who is leaking this information and that he intends to reveal his identity on his own terms with the advice of these trusted journalists. Snowden and Poitras understand our fascination not with the message, but the messenger, and Citizenfour triggers the same curiosity in me. More than wanting to know about Snowden, I am left wanting to know the story of the woman who got us in that hotel room. Does the thrill of being “chosen” by Snowden impact her ability to tell this story? How does she reconcile her role in this situation?
Privileged access. Who or what or where do you have access to that no one else has? Poitras’ unusual choice to sacrifice personal liberties in the pursuit of controversial stories attracts me to her films. Her process and commitment intrigue me. Snowden hopes that more individuals involved in the design and implementation of vast spying machines will come forward, inspired by him. I hope more filmmakers, inspired by Poitras, will come forward and show us what only they can. I hope that they will be individuals propelled, not only by ambition and ideology, but by the curiosity and bravery to confront their own responsibility in the vast media machine they contribute to.
Poitras got what she came for in Snowden. She documents his story, and portrays him in a suspenseful way that keeps audience’s attentive. Still, I wondered if her preconceived ideas about Snowden, whistle blowers and surveillance had hindered her reflexes for other details. Is she just so excited to be in that room, the chosen, trusted secret-keeper, that she no longer questions Snowden? I wanted her to arrive in Hong Kong open to the story, but I think she already knew what she had come to get.
“How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”―Buckminster Fuller