Last night, I went and saw Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” in a cozy little room full of old Quebecois people at the Hudson Documentary Film Festival. I’m not gonna say it sucked, because as a film – as a story – it worked. But as a documentary – that is, as a piece of non-fiction cinema designed to document some form of reality for the purposes of instruction – it sucked.
The film is about Edward Snowden and the biggest leak of classified documents in history and follows the second-by-second (literally and painfully) account of how Poitras and fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian, met Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room and broke the story of his leaks to the world.
The first scene of the film which follows a strip of white lights through a blacked out tunnel as a voiceover reads out “Citzenfour”‘s first email to Poitras (all of this chillingly underscored by industrial god-of-music Trent Reznor) is masterful as a piece of cinema. It brings you immediately into the drama of the story. Anonymous intelligence official going by ultra-trendy, ultra-techy pseudonym. Check. Explosive revelations about to made by said official. Check. Imminent proof of governmental wrongdoing. Check.
But before we’re even introduced to the real Citizenfour (Snowden), we’re taken to some flakey meeting hall populated by veritable cliches of foil-hat-wearing lefties where we have to listen to some twat named Jacob Appelbaum tell you that your Metro-card being linked to your MasterCard (and the NSA being able to access the metadata in some way) is the moral equivalent of the helicopters snooping through people’s windows in the first scene of 1984.
When we do finally meet Snowden he comes across as an exceptionally-intelligent, well-spoken and measured person who, having discovered something morally-reprehensible, has taken the career-ending, life-destroying decision to reveal it to the US public and the world. Rejecting the modern media’s focus on personality over substance, he tells us that he doesn’t want the leaks to be about him but about the leaks themselves.
It seems Poitras wasn’t listening to Snowden at this point because instead of using the rest of the film to inform us about what the NSA was actually doing, how they were doing it and how electronic surveillance has changed/increased since 9/11, Poitras chooses instead to treat us to very important (drawn-out) scenes of Snowden, in a bath robe post-shower, typing something on his laptop. Another five minutes is then wasted in a silly attempt at fear-mongering when Snowden’s disconnecting of his hotel room VOIP telephone from the wall (thereby, making deaf the omnipotent NSA snoopers) is implied to be the cause of a mysterious fire alarm on the tenth floor (later revealed as a fire drill when he calls the lobby).
The film’s advertising was framed around the promise that it would present the Snowden leaks in a manner which “goes beyond ideology”. In a profile by The New Yorker, Poitras herself states that “I don’t go into films because I want to make an ideological or political point”. Of course, its immediately apparent from the moment Jason Appelbaum is mis-en-scène, that the film we are watching has a clear ideological position – that the US government is sinister and their electronic surveillance program is very naughty indeed.
And it’s not even the obvious ideological slant that bothers me. I’m happy to watch documentaries with a clear political position. I sat through Jeremy Scahill’s film about the wrongdoings of a behind-the-scenes US general puppet-master overlord (with a public Wikipedia page) and how Anwar Al-Awlaki wasn’t such a bad guy after all. (I have to admit, I kind of dry-retched when Scahill made his cameo in this film).
… But yeah, there’s nothing wrong with a clearly-stated political bias in cinema (anthropologists acknowledge their own biases and call it “reflexivity“).
For example, if Poitras had spent more time dispelling the techno-babble surrounding the various surveillance programs and chosen to inform the public (the primary objective of meeting with Snowden in the first place) about what Xkeyscore and Tempora and Prism actually are and “why these programs are proof that the US government is evil and representative of the post-modern totalitarian world we live in”, then I would have left the cinema happy.
Instead, Poitras spent the last half-an-hour filming Snowden and his partner cooking dinner from outside the kitchen window of their Moscow apartment and following Glenn Greenwald, the tragic hero, as he reunites with his boyfriend whose had a rough time with customs at UK airports. (Pro-tip: All of us are arrested by government authorities from time-to-time. Some of us just write a blog post and then move on).
XKeyScore, what Poitras has chosen as her film’s stand-in for the “Treadstone” program, is talked about alot as this evil kind of thing hanging over everybody’s heads. Problem is, it’s never really explained what it is other than a quick snippet where Snowden describes it as a “front-end interface” (okay…). For the sake of informing the public about what XKeyScore is (something Poitras has failed to do), in a German TV interview Snowden explains that with XKeyScore:
“You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: you can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA’s information.”
This all sounds pretty evil (it’s just fun to use Manichean moralisms sometimes isn’t it?) and worthy of further scrutiny. But instead of scrutinising, Poitras chooses to show the audience what a sweet life Glen Greenwald lives typing away on his laptop from his condo in Rio de Janeiro – going against Snowden’s basic wish to emphasise the substance of the leaks rather than the personalities surrounding them. The final third of this film consists solely of journalistic dick-pulling centred around a common theme of “yeah! look how we got those guys!” interspersed with shots of satellite dishes in various locations around the world. It makes me hate the self-congratulating culture of “scoop”-seeking journalism more than anything else.
Maybe, more than anything, the fact that this film won an Oscar is indicative of Hollywood’s obsession with celebrity (since its raison d’etre is to celebritise Greenwald and Snowden), which if you ask me, is a worse indictment on modern America than electronic snooping will ever be.
When Jason Appelbaum returns to the screen (or maybe it was some other flakey hacker) he appears before the European Parliament and tries to tell us that the US government’s systematic invasion of people’s privacy equates to a loss of agency for the people they are targeting. LOL!
The point about online self-censorship in the face of being electronically-surveilled is a valid point to make (as in: “maybe I shouldn’t write down these thoughts if the NSA is listening”). But to say that a “loss of privacy” is the same as a “loss of agency”? Come on.
If you talk to the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon who spent his entire professional career living with the Yanamamao people in the Amazon he’ll tell you that in the gossip-ridden tribal villages where he hung out there is no such thing as privacy… but people do have their own agency.
The non-existence of privacy in the contemporary, hyper-connected world is not proof that we live in an Orwellian one. The point that Orwell was making about totalitarianism in 1984 was not about how important privacy is (some post-modern readers of Orwell might forget that he lived in a time before the Internet) but instead about how important it is that language be able to flourish freely in the face of big government (Newspeak anyone?).
In particular, Orwell was trying to show us how important it is that the parameters of acceptable language and thought remain unhindered by totalitarian forces. Noam Chomsky (probably because he is a linguist) alone amongst the anti-US left has grasped this nuanced message in 1984 in arguing that for a totalitarian regime to succeed:
“It is necessary to establish a framework for possible thought that is constrained within the principles of the state religion. These not be asserted; it is better that they be presupposed, as the stated framework for thinkable thought” (Chomsky, The Manufacture of Consent).
The fact that Poitras has produced and released this film (despite the pressure from US authorities) and that this film has also received a god-damned Oscar (thus winning approval from the core elite of American cultural life) is proof that Appelbaum’s assertion that “privacy=agency” is wrong. Poitras’ visual critique of the NSA’s surveillance programs still falls within the realms of what is acceptable free speech in American public life, therefore the Orwellian reality she is trying to depict (with her spy-film clichés and Trent Reznor music score) is actually not a reality at all. It’s a real shame because Poitras seems like a very competent film-maker and story-teller.
My main problem with the film is that I went into it wanting to be outraged. I wanted to know what the bastards were up to, hacking phones and whatnot… being all super-secret-sinister and shit. Instead I’m left with the impression that Snowden ruined his life for no reason, that post-9/11 US government surveillance is no worse than I thought it was after seeing how quickly the CIA could track down Jason Bourne, and that Poitras sucks at explaining technical computer things that I don’t understand.
I know what XKeyScore is now though… because I looked it up on Wikipedia.
In response to the Snowden leaks, supporters of the administration were skeptical of the extent to which the public had been adequately informed by the leaks. Obama himself said that “the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light”. To me this film is sensational and vapid because it emphasises personality over substance. So, ultimately, this film did very little in the way of proving Obama wrong.