One category that I will be keenly watching come Oscar Sunday (February 22) is the Best Documentary feature. That is because Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ documentary on Edward Snowden, is nominated.
The most striking thing about Citizenfour is the revelation of how ordinary the globally recognised whistle-blower is. Once he has shared the details of National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance network with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story, we meet a man who is unprepared to don the momentous mantle that he has wittingly put on his shoulders.
Snowden was only 29 when he went public with the revelations and he had told no one in his family about it, not even his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who now lives with him in Russia.
Snowden was shrewd enough to choose two of the best contemporary journalists to narrate his story. If Greenwald shared Snowden’s explosive material with the world, Laura Poitras, an American documentary maker, filmed every minute of that nerve-wracking week. They met in Hong Kong’s Mira hotel in June 2013, after months of email communication in which Snowden identified himself only as Citizenfour.
Both Greenwald and Poitras anticipated the value of what they had uncovered with Snowden, and the documentary benefits from this foreknowledge.
Citizenfour takes us through the events leading up to the leaks — a montage of Senate hearings and former intelligence officers who had expressed reservations about NSA excesses, never to much effect. The burden of 9/11 that led America into Guantanamo Bay and waterboarding was too onerous to merit attention on such soft topics as civil liberties.
In these scenes, we frequently hear a woman read out snippets of Snowden’s cryptic emails to Poitras. He warns her of the potential consequences of what he is about to do, and the narrative builds on this tension, and the viewer’s recognition of the subsequent shit-hitting-the-roof, to unleash a story that rivals the best thrillers.
Here was a young NSA contractor with a picture perfect life in Hawaii who had decided to go rogue. In so doing, he had steadily unravelled a system that was put in place after the September 11 attacks to strengthen America’s security but which had become so massive and unwieldy as to intrude upon the lives of millions of ordinary Americans. While all this is public knowledge, we have yet to read/hear/watch an account that tells us why Snowden did it.
Where did he get the courage to take on the biggest establishment in the world?
The documentary answers that question for us. Snowden was — is — really only a nerd who is concerned with data and the security of that data. As a Systems Administrator for NSA, he had access to some of the most classified documents in the agency’s possession. He was deeply uncomfortable with the power that this allowed NSA to wield, including tracking an ordinary person’s movements — and their entire life — based on their phone and email records.
In Citizenfour, Snowden tells Greenwald that he is not “self-sacrificing” — he is doing it because he places intellectual freedom above the risks that the revelations expose him to. Regardless of that advocacy, it was he who mustered the balls to speak up, not the hundreds of employees of Booz Hamilton or NSA who too knew but chose to keep quiet.
Since the revelations, life has not been easy for Snowden. He knew this all along, yet when the first burst of recognition as someone who had picked up the gauntlet struck, he took time to absorb the shock. The documentary captures him chatting with his girlfriend and learning how he was suspected to be the whistle-blower even before he had come out as one. (He had been away from work on sick leave.) There is the nervous laughter as he explains his status to Poitras and Greenwald, but one can observe the lurking paranoia. He disconnects the hotel phone line in his room and mistakes a routine fire alarm for something sinister.
Yet, overall, he holds it together. He even gets himself to dress up, put on hair gel and wear contact lenses for his first public appearance after the revelations. In these scenes, you see a young man who was, after all, at peace with his destiny and looked forward to making the most of the spotlight.
As of today, the storm seems to have passed. Snowden is ensconced in Russia, which has granted him a three-year residency permit. He remains a fugitive in America under the Espionage Act and may end up seeking asylum in Russia. His fate though is better than of Julian Assange, another anti-government crusader, who remains holed up in the Ecuador embassy in London. Assange risks arrest on sexual assault charges the moment he steps out.
With his revelations Snowden became the face of a movement whose germaneness has grown with time. On the one hand, there has been no serious global stock-taking of the dangers of mass surveillance. Even the Germans who took offence at their Chancellor’s phone being tapped have shut up. Perhaps this is an outcome of the rising security threats all around so that everyone has decided to be okay with a little uncalled-for snooping.
On the other hand, cyber war itself has become a jingoistic platform where nations are more than willing to set aside liberties in their quest for supremacy. The massive hack into Sony Pictures’ systems from allegedly North Korean origins is a case in point.
Snowden’s long-term contribution to this debate cannot yet be fully assessed, but through his carefully crafted and hugely ballsy actions, he shone light on one of the thorniest battles of our age. His motto, that you cannot enjoy freedom without privacy, ricochets through Citizenfour, and makes him a modern messiah for greater transparency.