Laura Poitras: Citizenfour


The credits roll over the darkness of a Hong Kong tunnel streaked by strip lighting that disappears down the middle of the screen. In this total visual abstraction, the soundscape is a moaning wind and a woman’s voice: ‘At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior employee in the intelligence community’.

Laura Poitras: Citizenfour (2014), film still. Image © RADiUS-TWC .
Laura Poitras: Citizenfour (2014), film still. Image © RADiUS-TWC .

Laura Poitras, filmmaker and journalist, is on her way to the Mira Hotel, reading an encrypted email from Edward Snowden which he sent in January 2013. This darkness is symbolic, but that atmosphere of danger is real enough, and equally dramatic for being so very recent. But by the time Citizenfour was screened last October, the season of hot debate was over. No fictional reconstruction, Citizenfour chooses not to spell out endless complexities which are left to the viewer to figure out, presenting instead the turning point in a lifetime. White out of black screen emails remind us that we live in two worlds, especially since Web 2. But pace Jean Baudrilliard, Snowden’s disclosures demonstrate how real the virtual world is. Citizenfour is one big understatement, its screen-world devoid of action or plot. Instead, the everyday is exceptional: we are made party to terse conversations interspersed with anxiety and waiting, while Snowden’s pauses get longer and longer. He is between actions; looking out of the window, waiting to be kidnapped, fearful of arrest.

We also meet the spies, the journalists, the whistle-blowers: William Binney, former analyst working for the US National Security Agency who made publicly known the illegal activities of the Bush War on Terror and, after trying to protest through official channels, was hounded like a medieval Cathar. Greenwald, the lawyer, investigative journalist and blogger. The spies: we watch top brass brazenly deceptive under oath, during a congressional hearing in May 2013 (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency). Was government collecting data on millions of Americans? In the filmed conversations over the eight days, Snowden sums up the hard evidence trickling out to The Guardian and The Washington Post since 5 June: that the US processes twenty billion communications worldwide every day; that since 2006, nine major internet companies have been providing the NSA with access to every US citizen’s calls, texts, emails, and documents stored in the Cloud; that GCHQ taps the UK’s forty transatlantic fibre optic cables and has access to Ireland’s too.

Citizenfour is a cinematic version of a Cartier Bresson ‘decisive moment’, filmed in real time. The rules of American storytelling, with its satisfying climax, are flouted. Instead, you get pieces of a puzzle which document some of the background, but no conclusion. Paradoxically, the culmination occurs in the middle, when, on 9 June 2013, Snowden reveals his identity in a twelve-minute filmed interview that was immediately uploaded onto The Guardian online. That’s the only event, the only ‘action’ to speak of, in the hotel where Poitras and Glenn Greenwald finally match the codename with a person who defies the disparaging media representations: a gauche young guy, taking a momentous step from an easy life in Hawaii to the challenging world of decision-making. We watch him reveal his identity to the world and hear him explaining that the reason why he has released secrets of state is to allow the journalists to select and provide context and commentary on the million and a half documents. He speaks to Poitras’s camera, saying quite simply: ‘All this is not about me, it’s about what’s been happening’.

In the final scene, in some dacha outside Moscow, we are in the company of Snowden (and Poitras) and of Greenwald who scribbles the name of the latest person to make secrets public. Viewers can only wonder what they might mean and accept or reject the unspoken invitation to begin the slow activity of interpretation.

I’m reminded of the critical documentary tradition of the 1960s and even earlier – before Jean-Luc Godard’s showy Brechtian interruptions – a tradition with roots in what film theorist and writer Cesare Zavattini termed ‘shadowing’ the real (pedinamento). Poitras’s camera too is ‘with people, in real time, confronting life decisions’, as she has put it. The filming conveys the same kind of excitement of being in the present as Albert Maysles’ shots of JFK walking through the crowds in Primary (1960). But though the Maysles brothers may well be among her models, Poitras’ relation to her subject is different: more like Chris Marker’s Cinéma Direct in Le Joli Mai (1963) than American Direct Cinema. For Poitras is directly implicated in the events and definitely on Snowden’s side.

The film’s title was Snowden’s code name before going public: a private person becomes a citizen, acting as a subject, by going beyond the personal sphere. “Things are not OK,” Poitras told a journalist. Rather than hector the viewer through interventionist approaches, such as Michael Moore’s or Errol Morris’s confrontational interviewing, Citizenfour raises the question of statesmanship obliquely: what happens when civil society questions the workings of parliamentary democracy? In theory, for Jürgen Habermas, the informal contexts of debate he calls lifeworld, should neatly and as a matter of course fix the contradictions of democracy by communicative action. In practice though, the underlying suggestion that haunts this film is that it takes great courage to elicit real dialogue.

Patriot or traitor? That’s the lingering question in the film. The dichotomy is between national security and human rights. Decades ago, photographs were smuggled out of Vietnam and given to Seymour Hersch. He got the My Lai story out, and acquainted the world with a run-of-the-mill genocide by the US military. Then David Ellsberg made public the Pentagon Papers, demonstrating how the Johnson Administration had lied to both the public and Congress (he only narrowly escaped prosecution on a technicality). In recent years, Hersch, once again, published damning photographic evidence of the Abu Ghraib prison torture of Iraqis. But if you are not a journalist, the US Whistleblower Protection Act (1998) offers you no protection for revealing information; nor is there any provision in the UK or Europe for a critique of government that works by making evidence available. Essentially, for the State and the States, Snowden is a criminal. Sadly history repeats itself: when Thomas Drake leaked to the Baltimore Sun in 2005, he was rewarded with years of legal proceedings against him. Chelsea Manning has been condemned to thirty-five years’ imprisonment. But how else would the public find out about wiretapping, torture and renditions?

Since the Snowden revelations, a review board appointed by Obama has found that collecting data from millions of Americans’ emails and texting was wrong and US Congress has introduced thirty bills to restrict NSA surveillance. Furthermore, Nils Muižnieks, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, has just condemned ‘secret, massive and indiscriminate’ surveillance. Even so, Snowden was charged with espionage and his passport revoked. ‘Citizen Four’ became a non-citizen. But too late. WikiLeaks got him out of Hong Kong on 21 June and eventually Russia granted him asylum, temporary at first, then extended for three years.

Awareness of this political and legal context makes Citizenfour resonate and shifts its workings into the territory of ‘new documentary’, that is, of art. Let’s hijack Michael Fried’s ‘absorption’ category, to refer instead to the enthralling atmosphere of danger and impending arrest that permeates a transitory, empty space, transforming a hotel room into an agora, part of the public sphere. This is a dimension mostly shut out by the unsubtleties of mass media and direct address documentaries. In this contemporary allegory, cinema no longer coincides with shots and cuts, or where to begin and end a shot. Instead, beyond the micro-history of current affairs, the particulars of contingency point to the universals of history.