Citizenfour

Citizenfour

In June 2013, over fifty-thousand classified documents pertaining to a collection of secret programmes of mass surveillance formulated in the wake of 9-11 by the NSA and GCHQ were leaked to The Guardian. The source of these leaks was NSA intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, whose codename when he first made contact is the namesake of the documentary we saw on Wednesday evening.

Citizenfour provides a unique and intimate insight on Snowden in the immediate run-up to, and aftermath of, the first publication of his revelations in The Guardian. The documentary is set in a hotel room in Hong Kong over the course of eight days, during which we are shown a behind-the-scenes view of Snowden’s initial meetings with The Guardian and stay with him, in the eye of the storm, as his leaks begin to be published.

Over the course of the film, we come to see Snowden in a very different light to that portrayed by mainstream media. For those who followed the story, the American media’s representation of Snowden as a “fame-seeking narcissist” and “traitor” is quickly dispelled as we see him lay down ethical ultimatums in his dealings with The Guardian: demanding that published stories focus on the content of the leaks, rather than the manner in which they came to light, and handing over responsibility for the content and timing of the publications entirely to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. The impression left is overwhelmingly one of a man interested in starting a global debate, rather than seeking personal fame, threatening the American people, or pandering to foreign interests.

Simultaneously, Citizenfour seeks to humanise and normalise the controversial subject at its centre. As other mainstream media is drip-fed information about The Guardian’s source in the aftermath of the publication, we find ourselves watching as Snowden - a man being charged with the Espionage Act, a law intended to prosecute hostile foreign agents - fumbles with a bright green umbrella in an absurd attempt at disguise. He quickly dismisses the idea as ludicrous, and the audience chuckles. A far cry from the master spy he’s portrayed to be, Snowden exudes an air of humility and naïvité more reminiscent of Johnny English than James Bond - an odd display of humanity not often seen of household names.

Know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cellphone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit and subject line you type is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.

Throughout the film, these more humourous elements are juxtaposed with constant, staggering reminders of the system which Snowden brought into public view. In one scene, the journalist Laura Poitras questions why he unplugs the hotel phone, to which he replies: “in these modern VOIP phones, they can record you without you taking it off the hook.” Later on, the laughter in the room is tense as Snowden dons a cowl - jokingly dubbed the “mantle of power” - for fear that the sound of his keystrokes will expose his password. He later laughs nervously as it is revealed there are several “construction vehicles” outside his girlfriend’s house; we all do the same.

We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.

Ultimately, Citizenfour serves as both an inspiration to action and a chilling reminder of a spying system which remains in operation to this day. The dangers of mass surveillance are underlined not only through the content of Snowden’s leaks, but through the manner in which he conducts himself throughout the film. Watching him display a compulsion which many would see as verging on

paranoia, it becomes shockingly clear that the world around us is slowly turning into a weapon. And not just any weapon - one so dangerous that in the wrong hands, it could be an effective means of mass oppression - if indeed, it isn’t already.

Which only begs the question: why does it exist at all?

Published October 29, 2014