Citizenfour: The Free And Brave Edward Snowden
Nearly three years ago, in 2013, Edward Snowden – a former American National Security Agency (N.S.A.) contractor – leaked anywhere from a hundred to two hundred thousand classified documents, that proved the existence of massive global surveillance, including of American citizens as well as top world leaders, run by the USA with the active cooperation of many allied governments as well as telecommunication and technology companies.
Although the unconstitutional, albeit controversially legal and nearly-Orwellian programs were not a complete surprise, the extent and scope was staggering. The exposure was a big blow to the Americans and had them scrambling to understand the implications, contain the fallout within and without, as well as discredit and intimidate Snowden and the journalists who worked on revealing the documents to the public. No less than Obama weighed in on the matter stating, “the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done...”
Not surprisingly many Americans, especially the older generation, considered and still think Snowden a traitor for jeopardising the safety of the country and its secret service, while most American youngsters as well as other nationalities think him a heroic whistle-blower. The truth of the actual consequences have more or less been lost in the din.
However, this ignited or rather reignited the debate between personal privacy vs. national security, with there being a clear and present struggle between the need to prevent terror attacks and protect civilian freedoms. And that is the theme of “Citizenfour” (2014), a film by Laura Poitras – a highly regarded and multi-award winning director and producer of documentary films – which provides a by the minute account of the tense and dramatic conversations of Snowden with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, as they process, digest and understand him and his explosive content, all the while cocooned in a secretive hotel room in Hong Kong.
As Snowden says in the film when asked about why he did what he did: “it all comes down to state power against the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.”
While the impact of the documentary will be staggering even to those who feel they have an intimate understanding and knowledge of the person and the event, it is the passion and commitment of all those involved, in the face of unjustified risks and justified paranoia, that elevates the movie to one of the most defining and damning documentaries of our times.
But the movie's potency lies not in the release of the material or who did what and not even how was it done, but in our gradual understanding of who Snowden is and what he stands for. This is crucial because although the documents he leaked are not directly about him, and though he repeatedly insisted that he not be made a hero, he was well aware that “nothing good” was going to happen to him (as he said to the Guardian) but still chose to do what he believed was the right thing, irrespective of the outcome.
As an instance, in an initial part of the film Greenwald asks Snowden, “If your self interest is to live in a world in which there is maximum privacy,doing something that could put you in prison in which your privacy is completely destroyed, how did you reach the point where that was a worthwhile calculation for you?”
His reply, “I remember what the internet was... free and unrestrained... changing of that model toward something in which people self-police their own views... they’re careful about what they type into search engines because they know it’s being recorded and that limits the boundaries of their intellectual exploration. I’m more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom, and that of those around me... I feel good in my human experience to know that I can contribute to the good of others.”
While this could sound aggrandising and egoistic on paper, seeing Snowden talk about it as a matter of fact yet with the utmost conviction makes one challenge the notion of what it means to be a patriot but also a human. And so, in lionising him, we do him – and us – a disservice. He does not want us to put him on a pedestal but wants us to bring our state system down a notch, from where it cannot look us in the eye and lie the way the director of the N.S.A. did, again and again on oath, that his agency was not intercepting online messages and would never do so without permission from the judiciary. The point is not that the state has the ability to see us naked in our own bedrooms, the point is that it is the Emperor that is naked, whether we are willing to be the one to point it out and be counted among the free and the brave.
That, more than anything else, is what Edward Snowden, aka Citizenfour, asks us.
The critically acclaimed, highly accoladed documentary that won an award for the Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Oscars.