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Criticism 2: Knowledge and Power

Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary provides a unique insight into Edward Snowden's historic notice.


CITIZEN FOUR. (Critique 2) Director: Laura Poitras photo: Trevor Paglen and others In January 2013, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras received an encrypted email from a person calling himself Citizenfour, who – after establishing a further coded correspondence – claimed that he on detailed information about the US government surveillance systems. At this time, Poitras was already working on a film about surveillance, and had himself experienced ending up on the authorities' "watch list" in the wake of his documentary My Country, My Country from 2006. In this Oscar-nominated film, she portrayed the consequences of American warfare and occupation in Iraq for the country's inhabitants, primarily through one family that she closely followed. Her camera presence near an attack where an American soldier was killed created rumors that Poitras knew this attack was coming. However, the allegations have never been proven, and to her defense there have been so many attacks that day that it would be difficult for a journalist not being close to the riots. Poitras herself denies having had knowledge of the attack beforehand, and claims that she almost continuously recorded material to My Country, My Country - and thus it felt natural to film when such situations arose. Nevertheless, her name ended up on a list of people the US government followed, which in the following years resulted in more than 40 comprehensive and time-consuming security checks at various airports as she traveled around the world. On one occasion, she even got her cell phones and computers confiscated for weeks. Poitras has never had a formal explanation for why she ended up in the authorities' spotlight. However, the experience was one of the reasons why she was contacted by the mysterious Citizenfour. Secret meeting. Some time in the correspondence, she was told to contact journalist Glenn Greenwald, who at this time wrote for The Guardian. Later, it would appear that Greenwald had previously been contacted by the same Citizenfour, without responding to his anonymous mailer's request to provide adequate encryption of their further electronic mail exchange. Eventually, Poitra was instructed to meet up with Greenwald at a hotel in Hong Kong, where the informant – the now world-renowned Edward Joseph Snowden, who was responsible for the largest information leak in US intelligence history – would sit in the foyer with a Rubik's cube in hands.

We see a reflected, well-formulated and strikingly unassuming young man, who just as fully takes his extreme precautions.

This sounds like it came straight out of an agent movie – and as the NOKAS robbers were allegedly inspired by various "bargain" movies, Snowden could probably benefit from some cinematic experience to plan such a mysterious gathering. The film CITIZEN FOUR also has elements of "techno-thriller", both in its design language and in its gradual discovery of something almost reminiscent of a plot by the US authorities. Also worth noting in this context is the film's minimalist electronic music signed by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor – who, with his collaboration with David Fincher, has established himself as a very interesting film composer. After this first meeting, Poitras and Greenwald spent eight intense days in Snowden's hotel room, where they, and soon also Greenwald's Guardian colleague Ewen MacAskill, interviewed the American National Security Agency (NSA) shopper about the extensive material he entrusted to them. The scenes were filmed by Poitras and make up the bulk of her thought-provoking and important film – which was awarded with this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary. Access. Perhaps the most essential thing for documentary filmmakers is access to what you want to document. Laura Poitras has obviously had a very unique approach both to her protagonist and to the events he set in motion, as she herself played a significant role in this historical leak. But one should also not underestimate the director's considerable talent for discreet observation and cinematic grip, which is no less impressive considering that much of the film consists of conversations in a small hotel room. CITIZEN FOUR is not a typical "talking heads" -based, report-like documentary, but an observational and at times visually strong film in which the director occupies the position of the well-known fly on the wall. In the estimate we will present Poitra's background, and the first correspondence with the then anonymous Snowden. Through this, the film strikes a suitably thriller-like tone, before providing an effective insight into the contemporary intelligence and surveillance landscape. We are presented with excerpts from lectures by NSA whistleblower William Binney and Occupy Wall Streets Jacob Appelbaum, as well as a Senate hearing in which government officials refuse to conduct the type of surveying of private individuals' communications that Snowden's documents would later demonstrate. Shortly after, we will describe the extent of this survey through Greenwald and MacAskill's questioning of him in the Hong Kong hotel room. The film features exceptional footage of Snowden as he presents for the very first time the extensive material for these journalists – who in turn will consider what should be published. We see a reflected, well-formulated and strikingly unassuming young man, who just as fully takes his extreme precautions. For example, when hiding his password, he hides the computer under a blanket in case it can be caught by cameras. During these days, Edward Snowden chooses to stand out to the world with his full name, through a video interview filmed by Poitras. With these sequences, CITIZEN FOUR to a certain extent, a portrait of the announcer, despite his insistence that it should not be about himself. "I'm not the story here," Snowden initially answers the compulsory questions about his background and motives, adding that he experiences the media's personal focus as a distraction from far more important things. It's hard to disagree, and one could possibly argue that Snowden's person actually received as much attention as the cases he announced. At the same time, ironically, it is almost impossible not to try to form a picture of who this man is and what motivated him when watching these footage. Well to note without doing this CITIZEN FOUR to a less fascinating movie, or focus away from the serious privacy violations it really is about. Snowden's great escape. Poitras does not document Snowden's dramatic escape from Hong Kong, as she had traveled to Berlin at this time because she was allegedly being pursued. These events, on the other hand, are portrayed in Danish Poul-Erik Heilbouth's documentary Snowden's great escape, which was recently broadcast on NRK – and is consequently available on the state channel's website. This movie completes this set CITIZEN FOUR, while its more conventional approach can be said to highlight the purely cinematic qualities of Poitras' film. Snowden's great escape is a classic television documentary with "talking heads", informative voice-over and illustrative use of archival material and reconstructions, which nevertheless provides an exciting insight into the dramatic events. Not least, Heilbouth has gained access to a significant amount of key players, from Snowden himself via WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison (who was with Snowden on the run) and Julian Assange, to former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden. But the film misses both Poitras' finely tuned aesthetics and her keenly observant gaze. "I'm not the story here." Edward Snowden Trilogy. CITIZEN FOUR is the last part of Laura Poitra's documentary trilogy about the United States after 9/11, which started with the aforementioned My Country, My Country. Then she made The Oath in 2010, which was about Guantánamo and the US war on terror. But even if it ends the trilogy, feels CITIZEN FOUR as a first chapter in a much larger story. There is still a lot in the documents Snowden released that has not been made known, and the final part of the film focuses on how the governing authorities have continued to oppose the publication – for example, the British authorities pressed The Guardian to destroy computers containing the leaked material. More stories will undoubtedly come in the future, about new whistleblowers inspired by Snowden's actions. In the film's final scene, Greenwald and Poitras Snowden visit his apartment in Moscow, where Greenwald describes a seemingly very profound, forthcoming leak – communicated discreetly through handwritten notes he rips to pieces right after. These disclosures have not yet seen the light of day, pointing out that the fight for privacy has only just begun. "We build the most powerful weapon of oppression in human history, and yet those who control it refuse to be responsible," Snowden says in the film. This is a good summary of the impression one is left with after seeing CITIZEN FOUR. The film gives a disturbing insight into how much information the authorities have access to about their own and other countries' citizens, and is a much-needed reminder that knowledge really is power. Both when it is collected and when it is spread. Huser is a film critic in Ny Tid.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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