There’s a nagging sensation in your gut when you watch Citizenfour. The BAFTA award-winning documentary by Laura Poitras is an exploration of the modern surveillance state, the Five Eyes Alliance (of which Australia is a part), and the Edward Snowden revelations, and the concerns it raises – particularly for those who haven’t been following the NSA leaks – will leave you reeling, significantly numb, and likely terrified.
Citizenfour primarily follows journalist Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald), documentary producer/director Poitras, and Edward Snowden himself from the moment Snowden first makes contact. Told through excerpts of encrypted e-mails, voiceovers, and footage of their discussions in Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong, we’re given an insight into the practically limitless surveillance programs in place, their enormous scope, and just exactly what is on the line.
There are moments of physical tension throughout – particularly when a fire alarm goes off in the hotel room, raising concerns they’re trying to be flushed out into the arms of police, and when Snowden finally leaves the hotel to flee for the UNHCR. Alongside this is a constant, ethereal tension underlying the entire film. It sits beneath the surface and rumbles as each conversation takes place, gradually revealing the unfathomable magnitude of everything we didn’t know.
One of the things made painfully clear is that Snowden is torn – he knows that if he reveals himself, it would be far too easy for the U.S. to make the leaks about him as a person, skewing public discourse away from the important debates we all need to have. But revealing himself is also a necessary act that says “I’m not afraid, and I won’t let the state scare me into hiding”. This internal conflict is explored before his identity is eventually revealed, but it isn’t a conflict borne of self-preservation. Snowden makes it clear that he knew the consequences of his actions long before he stepped down this path, and that it makes him feel good to be doing what he does. It is not an act of self-sacrifice.
Throughout the film we’re also introduced to journalists Ewen MacAskill (@ewenmacaskill) and Jeremy Scahill (@jeremyscahill), computer security researcher Jacob Applebaum (@ioerror), and William Binney, a former intelligence official for the NSA and whistleblower. All of these people are brought together to bring Snowden’s story to life, and they help it exist within the context of the every day. There is a thorough examination of how these surveillance programs are not simply about “national security”, but have serious implications for ordinary citizens and how we live out our lives.
Scahill speaks with Binney, who in one particularly striking scene explains the stifling impact that indiscriminate surveillance can have on journalists and the press: when the intelligence community can identify journalists’ sources, they can “get them off the street”. Regardless of how violent you infer Binney’s euphemism to be, this is of significant concern. For as long as everyone is being watched, the state will obstruct journalists and intimidate whistleblowers, and the damaging impact that this has on sustainable and otherwise healthy democracies cannot be understated. It is and will continue to be crippling.
More than anything, the actions of Snowden (and Greenwald, Poitras, and all others involved) are inspirational and empowering. If in the face of one of the most powerful and far-reaching intelligence agencies in the world, an individual can do as he did, then there is hope that more will feel emboldened to do the same when they come across wrongdoing.
“It’ll be like the internet principle of the hydra,” Snowden says in his hotel room. “Stomp one person and there’ll be seven more of us.”
A film like this leaves certain questions unanswered – but that is to be expected. To distil as much information as Poitras has into a cohesive documentary is impressive, especially one which is accessible to newcomers. Citizenfour exists as a starting point – a documentary that will bring individuals up to speed and, more importantly, into this world of issues that affect us all. And as for what it leaves untouched? Poitras recently mentioned in an interview with The Guardian that there is going to be “more reporting about Australia”. And without elaborating on the film’s final scene, there is a sense that there is much more to come globally as well.
At one point, a Brazilian journalist speaking with Greenwald says “One day we will know everything – or almost everything.”
Greenwald replies with one word.
Data retention in Australia
Organised by the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (@NSWCCL) (and other civil liberties councils around Australia), Madman Entertainment (@madmanfilms), Electronic Frontiers Australia (@efa_oz), and with the help of Senator Scott Ludlam’s (@senatorludlam) office, the Citizenfour advance screening was designed to inform and educate MPs on the dangers of warrantless, indiscriminate surveillance of entire populations – a timely concern given the persistence with which Mr George Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott (@tonyabbottmhr) are pushing their mandatory data retention bill.
— NSWCCL (@NSWCCL) February 9, 2015
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) is due to report on the proposed data retention bill by February 27, and Mr Bill Shorten has said that Labor will withhold its stance on the bill until the report is released, despite Mr Abbott writing to him to ask Labor to help expedite the bill’s passage.
More recently, Senator Ludlam questioned the Attorney-General’s Department during a senate hearing, and in the process outlined ways in which people would be able to operate online outside the scope of the proposed data retention scheme. Worth remembering however is that in the context of this, much of that data outside of Australia’s data retention scheme may be collected by U.S. agencies and shared with Australian authorities via the Five Eyes Alliance – so what appears to be a hole in the proposed surveillance net may not be much of a hole at all.
Post-screening Twitter round-up