Citizenfour forces its audience to relinquish a reality built on certain assumptions – the assumption that we know a reasonable amount about who has our personal information, what it is being used for, who is watching us, and the effects that these things have on our lives.
The documentary, directed by journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras, charts the initial communications between her and Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who helped reveal the immense scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and more. We follow Poitras right up until her eventual meeting with Snowden – along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, and later, Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill – in a hotel room in Hong Kong. The bulk of the documentary takes place there, as Snowden talks through the implications of the programs, his motives, and why the revelations affect us all.
Citizenfour won the 2014 Oscar for Documentary Feature – but it wasn’t just for the politically charged content it covers. Poitras manages to capture the intensity of situations that happened close to two years ago, almost as if they were happening live on screen. When Snowden finally leaves, and the hotel door shuts behind him – despite the fact that we know he’s currently residing safely in Russia – there’s an instinctive desire to know what happens next.
Few directors are capable of taking such a widely known story, reconstructing it so far after its initial happening, and still giving it new and fresh meaning. Citizenfour is captivating and approachable, even for those new to Snowden’s revelations. See it now.
By Jeremy Stevens
Originally published in Curieux Issue 2, 2015.