Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. This month’s theme is surveillance.
Since the Cold War and maybe even before, we have all been jokingly aware of the fact that our respective governments are, to some extent, watching us. The extent of which would remain unknown for a good number of years, with the idea of government surveillance often appearing more in Twilight Zone-esque stories than in serious political analysis. However, after the events of 9/11 and the introduction of the Patriot Act, many became aware of the fact that with modern technology, governments have more power than ever to spy on their own citizens. Enter Edward Snowden and with him, Citizenfour.
The first thing to clear up about Citizenfour is that this is not merely a documentary profiling Snowden and the revelations that he brought forward. Laura Poitras, the director of the film, was contacted directly by Snowden and actively took part in divulging the information he provided. Citizenfour is not so much an account of whistleblowing so much as it is whistleblowing itself. Snowden would bring from his job working with a defence contractor for the NSA a massive amount of evidence proving the titanic scale of surveillance the US government were undertaking both domestically and internationally. The government had a list of people under official surveillance that was around 1.2 million names long, as well as receiving metadata from trusted service providers. This metadata would not be limited to that of the people on the watchlist, but rather the entirety of the metadata available to the company in question. When challenged, the cases often get lost in a maze of bureaucratic court cases, that ultimately lead nowhere. For example when AT&T were taken to court by a group of customers in 2006 for breeching their customers privacy.
What is most striking about Citizenfour, is the scale of what it revealed. Everyone was implicated across party lines. Bush, Cheyney, Obama, Pelosi, all knew and sanctioned this massive breech of public trust. Poitras conveys this by simply presenting us with the facts. There are no petty politics at play here, Poitras simply focuses on trying to spread awareness of how governments seem to be operating in ways that do not benefit their citizens. By allowing Snowden to walk us through his findings, and having journalists present to help make this information more accessible, we get a film that not only educates us on these new tools of repression, but also demonstrates the danger of getting on the wrong side of them. The eight-day interview with Snowden that makes up the film’s centrepiece shows the terrifying lengths that its key players must go through in order to talk undetected.
Few documentary films can offer the sheer historical importance that Citizenfour manages to capture. This is a film that does not look back at events through archival footage, or even analyse modern events with a removed lens. This film captures the moments at which Edward Snowden blew the whistle, and while doing so, allows us to feel the frustration, betrayal, and emotion that he felt in those moments. Snowden showed sheer bravery simply by contacting Poitras, and in following through with releasing the information as comprehensively as he did. He will surely be looked back on as one of the defining figures in America’s post 9/11 history, and this film shows the magnitude of the actions he took as they happened.