We all have a stake in this, this is our country and the balance of power between the citizenry and the government is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled as opposed to actually, you know, the elected and the electorate.”
‘Citizenfour’, directed by Laura Poitras in 2014, is an American documentary following the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden as he reveals the details of his career and insight to journalists. Poitras, in the middle of making a more general documentary about government surveillance, is contacted by Snowden who is planning to share the secrets of the US government’s information harvesting facilities to the media. The bulk of the documentary features Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room being interviewed by Guardian reporters, intercut with interviews with other insiders, footage from conferences and, ultimately and most disturbingly, the events after the news has broken as the journalists find themselves under scrutiny and Snowden is chased out of the country to be stranded in Russia. It’s one of those strange documentaries which, if it were a fictional conspiracy thriller it would be considered far-fetched. The measures Snowden goes to to avoid detection, for example booting up a laptop with a blanket over his head to shield himself from the webcam, are chilling. The themes of the film are far wider than the question of whether Snowden is a hero or not, much of the movie is concerned with the nature of surveillance, with the implications of multi-national projects to spy on their own people, and with the vulnerability of information in the internet age. The real moment of drama comes at the end when the true extent of the surveillance programmes are revealed, and they are so extensive and so pervasive that even Snowden, up until then a cool and controlled person, is shocked.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it shares a number of the genre characteristics of the surveillance genre and films such as ‘All the President’s Men’ so I’d watch it in a double bill with that.