In 2013, National Security Agency affiliate Edward Snowden anonymously contacted documentary maker Laura Poitras with promises of information, and both agreed on meeting in Hong Kong. Only a few days later, Snowden leaked classified information to the press and established himself as the biggest whistleblower of our generation.
Due to its rise in popularity after the Oscar win, “Citizenfour”, the documentary chronicling these events, was given a reopening at Circle Cinema accompanied by a discussion afterwards. “Citizenfour” is the third of a trilogy of films Laura Poitras has directed focusing on post-9/11 America’s darker side. By the time this movie was being filmed, Poitras was already being stopped at U.S. borders constantly thanks to her past material. This film is worthy of controversy as well, as it challenges the government’s national surveillance methods.
The question after 9/11 was how to better trace future threats to national security. Now a more complex problem has originated: how to ensure national security while also ensuring personal liberties. In this modern age of phones, internet use and similar communication, a balance must be found. In its current state, in which surveillance goes unchecked and avoids the judicial system, Snowden argues that the balance of power “is becoming that of the ruling and the ruled, as opposed to actually the elected and the electorate.”
In pure quality of film, “Citizenfour” is an excellent documentary that knows the importance of subtlety when it comes to reality. The cinematography is beautiful and tense, the short soundtrack uses Nine Inch Nails to set the mood and close the film, and under the constant pressure of being watched, Poitras perfectly captures the stress of the people involved.
The movie stars a few familiar faces, most of whom already have a history with controversy. Obviously there is the main cast, but also Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame; Jeremy Scahill, investigative reporter of the Iraq War and Blackwater; and William Binney, a former NSA agent and whistleblower himself. The film doesn’t interrupt itself to teach the audience the basics but allows experts’ emotions and fears to convey its point.
After the showing, the short Q&A included TU’s John Hale and Tamara Piety and Tulsa World’s Wayne Greene, who all granted more perspective on the subject. Dr. Hale brought up project SHAMROCK, a 1945 operation to analyze all telegraphic data entering or exiting the United States. Like the NSA’s current surveillance, court and warrants were generally ignored when action was taken. As technology has advanced, so has the potential for surveillance. All three speakers stressed that the lack of transparency and regulatory agents needs to change.
What makes this movie so engaging is how topical it is. The discussion afterwards was a glimpse into how alarmed citizens are at such government action. The focus now should be how to find an answer to surveillance without eliminating the question of security. How quickly can we advance law compared to the evolution of technology? How do we move towards transparency with the risk of leaking confidential information? Wayne Greene remarked that almost every national news article is no more than two degrees of separation from the issue of surveillance. This is one of this age’s most prominent questions of ethics, and one the film portrays with immense importance.