This week I had the pleasure of seeing an advance screening of Citizenfour in Sydney, hosted by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. The movie is coming out in Australia as the government here considers data retention legislation that would require telephone companies to store customer metadata for two years.
Citizenfour is a documentary that unfurls like a spy movie, focusing on filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first meeting with Edward Snowden at a Hong Kong hotel in June 2013. During their visit, they would reveal details of the classified documents Snowden took from the US government about America’s secret surveillance programs. This is largely a cinematic version of the experience reported by Greenwald in the first part of his excellent book, No Place to Hide.
At one point in the film, Snowden says he wants the world to focus on the documents and not on his own personality. Ironically, Poitras focuses her lens squarely on Snowden and provides a sympathetic view of his emotions as he speaks to the journalists and his reactions as he watches the story appear on news channels around the world. Perhaps with it now two years since the great reveal, the players involved are okay with their story being told.
While the film gives an overview of some of the shattering revelations revealed by Snowden, watching Citizenfour acts as more of an introduction than an analysis. For more detail, the viewer will have to read Greenwald’s book or go back to the original news stories that broke at the time of the Snowden revelations. Even so, the film gives one the immediate sense that some pretty dystopian stuff has been going on behind the scenes. It is sure to spur discussion and debate, which is exactly what Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald want.
As a piece of history, it’s a pretty incredible film. Never before has a whistleblower leak been documented in real-time. Usually, you only get the aftermath, or at best a dramatization. Rarely do you get to see the whistleblower himself and experience the sacrifice he has made to do what he believes is right.
As you may know, I’ve written a couple of dystopian novels. I thought I’d imagined some pretty crazy stuff for those books, but at a few points in Citizenfour I found myself thinking, “Damn, I should have included something on that!” It’s pretty incredible to think that the reality of government surveillance might be more frightening than fiction.