London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A slim, but innocuous-looking man with ashen skin and dark circles under his eyes studies himself in the mirror of his Hong Kong hotel room, where he has been hiding out for over a week. The TV screen by him is playing the day’s leading world news story: the identity of a recent US intelligence leak has been revealed. Dressed in a black suit and shirt, the man fusses with hair gel, an electric shaver and contact lenses—an open umbrella, even—attempting to disguise his appearance as it looks on screen, in order to escape from the room unnoticed.
You could be forgiven for thinking this scene is from a Hollywood spy movie; in fact it’s from Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, the documentary that follows former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden as he exposes the US government’s invasive post-911 surveillance activities to the world—via two flash drives smuggled from his post in Hawaii and an agreement with two newspapers, including the UK’s Guardian.
The content of these million-plus classified documents has since been widely reported: nine internet firms were being tapped by the NSA, including Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google; the phone data of nearly every US citizen was being collected from leading telecommunications companies; numerous governments were cooperating in collecting e-mails, video chats, texts and voicemails of US citizens and foreigners—the list is extensive. The revelations exposed the terrifying extent of government surveillance in the information age, and reignited furious debates about the needs of national security versus personal privacy.
Conversely, according to a statement by three leading UK spy chiefs, terrorists, including Al-Qaeda, were “rubbing their hands with glee.” The public exposure of US spying tactics in cooperation with three of its ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance—the UK (GCHQ), Canada (CSEC), and Australia (ASD)—meant the terrorists were changing their procedures, impeding global national security operations for years.
For various reasons, many didn’t know what to make of Snowden, a former CIA and Booze Allen Hamilton employee, when he first came to public attention in June 2013. Was he a narcissist with a “God complex” as fellow whistleblower Julian Assange is often labeled? Was he seeking revenge on former employees and colleagues? Or did he really, as claimed in the documentary, give up his family and former life for altruistic reasons—for the betterment of society? “I’m worried that the world today is obsessed with personality. I don’t want to be the story,” he says early on in the film.
Somehow, Citizenfour’s intimate portrayal of Snowden—who comes across as self-effacing, calm and sincere—and his journey into the unknown, raises more questions about him than it answers; the unsettling subject matter still leaves the viewer with a lingering sense of paranoia.
“I’m not trying to tell the whole story or survey the whole industry. I’m interested in why these particular individuals are willing to risk so much,” said filmmaker Poitras at the movie’s sold-out UK screening at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on Friday evening. Yet, Poitras—herself placed on a government watch-list for her 2006 Academy Award-nominated film, My Country, My Country, about the US occupation of Iraq—does little in the film to probe Snowden’s motives.
The film was conceived very differently before Snowden made contact with Poitras in January 2013 (after watching Poitras’ film about NSA veteran whistleblower William Binney, according to the director) using an encrypted email service and the pseudonym, ‘Citizenfour,’ now the film’s title. “We had a rough cut of the film before Snowden got in touch,” Poitras said. “We’d assembled a lot of scenes around similar themes.”
After some correspondence in the film—shown as white-on-black typed messages—Snowden summons Poitras and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald to a hotel in Hong Kong. They meet covertly: “I’ll be working on a Rubik’s cube, approach me and ask where the lounge is,” types Snowden. All these spy-film-esque exchanges culminate—around a half-hour into the film—in Snowden’s appearance.
The 29-year-old IT contractor is introduced to us sitting in his hotel room, a little awkwardly, on the side of the bed in a white T-shirt and jeans. This commonplace scene, where the bulk of the filming takes place, is where Snowden discusses with Greenwald-—the first to break the story—and later Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, how they will roll out the classified material in the newspaper over the course of eight days, until ultimately revealing Snowden’s identity—the point at which he initially plans to give himself up to the authorities (it is never divulged why or when he changed his mind about the latter).
The tension builds slowly over the course of the revelations. Long close-ups of Snowden show him reading emails—updates from home from his partner, Lindsay, whom he left without informing of his plans, while she was on holiday—telling him his direct debit to his landlord has been mysteriously canceled and that “construction vans” are now parked outside his house. There is tension, too, every time he reveals to the group, as they fumble with disks, wires and laptops, all the many ways in which they could potentially be being watched or recorded. A suspiciously timed fire drill sets everyone on edge. When asked about his stress levels, Snowden replies that he is OK, but “that all might change when they kick in the door.” Though his nerves mount as the film progresses, Snowden is unflinching in his determination to see his plan through to the end. “These aren’t my issues, these are everyone’s issues,” he says at one point, seemingly explaining his resolve.
As with all true-life situations, nothing is entirely seamless and the film is also humorous thanks to its awkward moments. At one point, Snowden hides beneath a red cloth to protect his keystrokes from potential cameras. As tense as they are by this point, this bizarre image of a man hunted by the authorities leads to ripples of laughter from the audience.
After his identity is made public on June 9, 2013, the crew is forced to separate for an extended period. Poitras returns to Berlin and Greenwald to Rio. The last scene plays out in Russia where Snowden is now living with Lindsay—a fact reported in the papers after it was revealed in the documentary. Here, Greenwald informs Snowden via scribbled notes (to evade audio monitoring) of another NSA agent feeding information about drone strikes—to raised eyebrows and awed muttering from Snowden. Little detail is given about the content of the conversation, though it did appear to be a teaser for the next round of leaks.
The documentary offers a fascinating insight into the events and the man behind the biggest intelligence leak in history. It would, however, also be irresponsible to present the film as the whole truth. Poitras is not merely the filmmaker, but also part of the story, and hers and Greenwald’s investment is clear. The film barely acknowledges questions about the legality or the ultimate impact—good or bad—of Snowden’s actions, leaving the viewer with a less-than-full picture of the film’s protagonist, let alone its subject matter. Poitras is successful in capturing the tension and drama of the situation, and in portraying the rawness and inconvenience of the experience of her subjects, a testament to her skills as a filmmaker. Certainly, leaving the theater one can’t shake the feeling of being watched. Before watching Citizenfour, however, it would be advisable for anyone to fully inform themselves of the facts of the case, just to be sure that their lasting impression of one of the biggest intelligence scandals in history isn’t simply down to clever film-making.