The word "polarizing", according to economist Robert Reich, is currently used to describe "anyone with a strong conviction, who tells it like it is, who challenges the status quo". That is, anyone whose actions raises important questions that shatter the conformity of society, politics and media, and to those who speak their minds, rightly or wrongly, in face of massive opposition. Certainly, Edward Snowden fits such a bill.
A systems administrator with access to the secret American intelligence and surveillance networks, born in a military family in North Carolina, Mr. Snowden decided to make public the extent to which the American government (but not only) was using technology to maintain an "always-on" surveillance state, and in so doing became - depending on where you stand - either a heroic whistleblower or a miserable traitor.
The truth, however, is more shaded: his actions have brought to the fore a growingly disturbing sense of encroaching Orwellianism, as the all-pervasive technology surrounding us and liable to empower an individual also welcomes in an all-seeing, all-controlling state as depicted in the British writer's classic dystopian novel 1984. And the disclosures of the extent of the surveillance programmes set up by the American National Security Agency and other intelligence and police agencies certainly raise important questions about the growingly porous borders of personal privacy.
At the time of his 2013 disclosures, Mr. Snowden "recruited" American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and Brazil-based American journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald to help him navigate the media in order to divulge the documents he had gained access to and wished to leak. Ms. Poitras and Mr. Greenwald were chosen by Mr. Snowden for their history of looking at the global consequences, unintended or otherwise, of momentous decisions made at a political level after the tragic events of 9/11.
What Ms. Poitras does in Citizenfour, though, isn't simply a mere recap of the seven days during which her, Mr. Greenwald and British journalist Ewen MacAskill met Mr. Snowden in Hong Kong and strategized how best to make the information available. Using the "access-all-areas" footage shot in Mr. Snowden's hotel room in June 2013 as the centerpiece of this feature-length documentary, the filmmaker is instead creating a warts-and-all portrait of Snowden the man, as seen beyond the hall of mirrors of media attention and activist stands. Yes, Citizenfour narrates the process of leaking the information Mr. Snowden decided needed to be shared with the world, but in so doing it trains its camera on the man who made that decision.
Ultimately, as Ms. Poitras' film shows, despite all of the help he may have had, the buck stops at him, and things are never how you think they were going to be. It's one thing to take a moral, idealistic stance, as Mr. Snowden clearly decided: "this is wrong, I can't be a part of this, I have to do something to stop it from happening." It's another thing to actually face the consequences of what it was he did. Citizenfour shows the "before" and the "after" of that decision; it depicts the category-5 hurricane Mr. Snowden deliberately walked into, then shows him standing in its eye like a deer caught in the headlights, suddenly realising what it was he did and willing to let the chips fall where they may.
The very picture of a bright boy-next-door-made-good, once his identity is revealed publicly you can see something shift in Mr. Snowden, something become different, other, like a great weight has been placed on his shoulders and he is no longer as certain that he can carry it. Therein lies what makes Citizenfour a thrilling piece of filmmaking: it's a film that takes its time to let us know who the person at the centre of its story is, it reminds us that there are human beings at the heart of every decision ever made for good or bad, and that there are strong feelings underlining that decision.
This is an openly activist documentary, in the sense that it tells us something is going on that is important for our society and polity and that we should not look away from. But it would just be a dry tract if it didn't take the time to explain why and to show us why other people think this is important. And what is important in Citizenfour is precisely that it shows us someone willing to lay himself on the line for what he believes in - something that comes out of a profound love for an ideal Mr. Snowden felt his country was not living up to. For that, Ms. Poitras films him with great respect but also a peculiar sense of disbelief that someone like him, willing to sacrifice everything for a greater ideal, can still exist in this day and age. A deer in the headlights, indeed.
Germany, USA, United Kingdom 2014
Director Laura Poitras; cinematographers Ms. Poitras, Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen; editor Mathilde Bonnefoy; producers Ms. Poitras, Ms. Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky; production companies Praxis Films in co-production with the Bertha Foundation, Britdoc Circle, Channel Four Television Corporation, Nord Deutschen Rundfunk and Bayerischen Rundfunk, in association with Participant Media and HBO Documentary Films
Screened March 3rd 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)