Laura Poitras' chilling portrait of Edward Snowden on the edge of exposure raises many questions about our relationship to surveillance in the UK.
Laura Poitras’ chilling portrait of Edward Snowden on the edge of exposure raises many questions about our relationship to surveillance in the UK
Edward Snowden is in a Hong Kong hotel room, perched nervously on the edge of the bed. He is about to betray some of the most powerful people in the world.
He is calm, but his palms shift against each other and you can hear the dryness in his mouth.
This is the setting for most of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ excellent film about the 2013 NSA leaks.
It watches Snowden as he unravels his story to two rapt journalists, who then take the story to press while Snowden waits under siege in the room, twisting under the enormity of what he has done.
Poitras is an American documentary film maker who was intimately involved in Snowden’s case from the start.
In January 2013 she received a coded email from someone identifying themselves only as ‘citizenfour’ asking for her help in exposing the NSA’s blanket surveillance of American citizens.
Poitras had spent the last two years working on a film about surveillance, and as an NSA insider Snowden knew that she was the target of extensive government interest. He agreed to let her film what would become one of the biggest whistleblowing scandals in American history as it played out.
It is testament to Poitras’ skills that she can hold our attention through a story whose ending we all know; the film is completely engrossing. When we see Snowden cooking in his Moscow flat at the end of the film, it is like watching somebody trapped in a light box. As viewers we gladly take part in the voyeurism.
There is plenty of paranoia in the chilled white hotel room, where Glenn Greenwald and Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill make Snowden go right back to the start. They do not even know his name when they meet him.
Snowden is adamant throughout that he himself does not become the story. He insists that the leaks are designed to salvage civil liberties in America rather than a means of creating a press scandal. “These are not my issues”, he says. “You know, these are everybody’s issues.”
Pale and softly spoken, Snowden tells the journalists that he is coming forward because he realised that he was “designing systems to amplify state power.” He never questions that the story is bigger than him.
But there are problems with Snowden’s attitude. He tells Greenwald and MacAskill that he does not want to be the one to choose which documents are leaked, and that he will leave it to their journalistic discretion: “I trust you’ll be responsible”.
This is despite the fact that Snowden is the only person in the room who can truly understand the implications of the information at stake; only he knows the extent of the damage these documents could cause to national security. There are certainly times where his apparent lack of ego blurs into evasiveness.
Whatever you think of Snowden, his intelligence is never in doubt in the film. He is thoughtful and measured when discussing the moral implications of his decision. He does not talk much about himself.
He says that he is happy to risk imprisonment for the sake of the freedom of his fellow citizens, and resists Greenwald’s attempts to save him from being identified. He knows that the NSA will identify him, probably sooner rather than later. Despite everything, Snowden still knows who is in charge.
He has a cool veneer, but we do see Snowden get spooked. Repeat fire alarm tests in the hotel are like a knife to the nerves – he worries that they might mean the room is tapped.
During the period of time that the film covers, Snowden’s girlfriend knew nothing about his whereabouts.
“Well, she’s alive”, he half-jokes, when she contacts him after being questioned by NSA agents. He clearly believes everybody close to him to be in real danger, heightening the sense that there is a terrible darkness outside the Hong Kong fortress.
Snowden no longer believes his government wants the best for him, and he clearly wrestles with how best to convey this during the careful exchanges.
This film is important because we need to explore how we feel about the surveillance we are subject to. There is a tendency for people to take a stance of ‘I’ve got nothing to hide, let them watch me.’ The problem with this is that when people believe they are being watched they modify their behaviour. Once this happens, even if it is subconscious, we are no longer truly free.
Unlike some people I have spoken to on this subject, I do not believe that the government are crowding round the texts I send to my boyfriend. I am willing to accept that at this point in time, infringements on this kind of material are a sort of collateral damage in the surveillance operations necessary to apprehend terrorists.
But a shift to a more malignant form of government in the UK would make these infringements incredibly dangerous. Incidentally, one of the big questions with the Snowden case is the role of Russia, whose SORM laws enable complete monitoring of any communication, electronic or traditional, by eight state agencies, without warrant.
A state whose surveillance has breached human rights in an extremely serious way is an odd choice for Snowden’s protector, and some acknowledgement of this in the film would have been welcome.
Once the story is out, we see Snowden trapped in his room, styling his hair to look less like himself. He blots it with paper, looks into his own eyes. It is impossible to say what he is grappling with.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.