Snowden under siege

Citizenfour is a portrait of a one person who has chosen to resist the strong arm of the state

The Oscar-winning Citizenfour has opened in Bangkok. An opportune cinema experience here in our land of 99.9% democracy where the contentious Cyber Security Bills are being revised, the so-called Edward Snowden documentary seethes with unsettling power. Its civic outrage is strong, but the cool-headed storytelling gives it gravity. The immediacy of the issue at its heart is also the debate of the early 21st century. And if the film lets us know from the start that it's taking the side of the whistle-blower, all the better.  

This is film as activism, and documentary filmmaking as dissension. Laura Poitras, the director, had been working on her third film in the trilogy of post-9/11 US (her previous two were My Country, My Country and The Oath) when Snowden contacted her via an encrypted email back in 2012. He called himself "Citizenfour", and the this computer engineer contracted by the US National Security Agency (NSA) to design a massive surveillance system wanted to come forward and expose what he saw as a gross violation of citizens' rights by the American government in its programme of indiscriminate data mining.

"NSA is building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man," Snowden wrote to Poitras. And in order to protect the people close to him, the filmmaker must be "nailing me to the cross rather than trying to protect me as a source".

Citizenfour unfolds roughly in three acts. The first is a primer on how the US War on Terror has emboldened the National Security Agency to expand its reach and encroach upon the sanctity of private communications, sometimes unconstitutionally. The second act — the longest, tensest and most claustrophobic — concerns Poitras' trip to meet Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel, a trip arranged with the intrigue of spy novels, along with The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and later Ewen MacAskill. After Snowden exposes the NSA's project and his face is splashed all over the news around the world, he flees Hong Kong, and the film spends its final 30 minutes showing the implications of his revelation, including the NSA's eavesdropping tentacles in the UK, Brazil and Germany (Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone was even tapped).

Detractors have tried to find faults that the film ignores details and counter-arguments — like why Snowden revealed spy information that might benefit China, or the fact that the NSA's programme, sinister as it may sound, has never actually "hurt" anyone. That doesn't fly, or at least it doesn't fly in the context of the film as leverage against the menacing, bloated state machine that has been acting with little concern for the citizens. The fact that Citizenfour has been made (Poitras said in the film that she had been on the watch list of the government after making her previous films that criticised the US foreign policies), that it has been released, that it has somehow won an Oscar, and that it has made its way to Bangkok screens where the ripples of Snowden's messages can be felt — all of this shows that in a democratic country, art sometimes has the power to slap the authorities' face and remind them that their power isn't unlimited.

The strongest — and to me strangest — part of the film is its midsection. In a Hong Kong hotel room, the camera intimately observes Snowden (as well as Greenwald, who emerges as a very talkative character), often in his T-shirt, his pale, geeky good looks occupying the frame as if we were sitting there facing him. Snowden insists that this isn't his story, but everyone's story. He is ready to reveal himself despite the risks because he doesn't want to hide — and yet he's wary that due to the way the modern media works, he would become the centre of the story instead of what he wants to reveal. Hero, spy, thief, traitor, narcissist? The way Poitras trains the camera at Snowden's face, locking him in the flat surface of the frame, deprived of context, as he appeared calm, lucid, and yet sometimes troubled by a hint of paranoia — this almost feels like an invitation to catch him lie or flip. As he's exposing the government, the camera opens the possibility of exposing him. And to me, he survives the persistent gaze and passes the test. That doesn't make him a hero, but it makes him human enough for us to believe in his decision — another Deep Throat in the era of tenacious camera and internet scrutiny. That Snowden is living in exile in Russia — a place with a well-documented record of mass surveillance — is supremely ironic, a fact the film acknowledges in the final scene (though it could've stressed that point even stronger). That he's been charged with the World War I-era Espionage Act is quaint and yet inevitable. But as the man has stressed, he's neither a hero nor a traitor, and Citizenfour is a portrait of a citizen who has chosen to resist the strong arm of the state. It's not easy, but I'm tempted to say: let's try this at home.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist