Thursday, January 22, 2015

Citizenfour (2014)

Director: Laura Poitras
Features: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Julian Assange


The documentary film features Snowden, Greenwald and Poitras as they break the stories related to the 'Snowden Leaks' on NSA. They met in a hotel room in Hong-Kong and the film is more about the process through which they broke it and their reactions to it rather than about the underlying politics or the technicalities around it. 

Citizenfour was the code-name used by Snowden to refer to himself during his communications with the documentary maker. It sort of feels like a thriller with very cinematic qualities despite being a documentary film. The issue of privacy is related directly to the idea of 'Freedom of Speech', which is essential for a democracy to function properly. Surveillance is an essential tool for dictatorships to survive and even in a democracy, surveillance without adequate oversight is dangerous to its citizens and is something that can undermine the democracy itself. The whole idea behind whistle-blowing is to bring out some inconvenient truths about the organization. The natural reaction to it would be one of hostility and that is why there should be strong whistle-blowers protection guidelines and even rewards. Snowden was a whistle-blower against the government itself and the whole reaction against him from the establishment was like he was a traitor. Unlike the Bradley/Chelsea Manning leaks, there wasn't an indiscriminate publishing of materials without any regards to security issues to warrant such a reaction. The way Snowden leaked, learning from the Wikileaks issue, was through journalists  with a public interest angle. It is telling that some pre-world war one espionage act was used against him by the Obama administration.

One can listen to Dan Carlin's Common Sense podcast episodes from those times to go deep into the ideological issues behind the whole affair. I guess there would be again some people that come with 'Surveillance is fine as long as we are protected' after the Charlie Hebdo issue. The thing is that NSA's PRISM program was not very effective in the security sense since they collected too much data to make any actual sense of it regarding security. So what we are left with is a state and its agencies who are free to use this trove of data as they please.  The documentary informs us that Britain's GCHQ's  surveillance program is much more invasive than PRISM since they are not bound by constitution like NSA is. 

The ending sequence of the documentary showing Greenwald and Snowden communicating using paper and pencil is a little corny but leaves us on tenterhooks. I haven't seen any other documentaries from Poitras but she is supposed to have done another two prior to this dealing with post 9/11 USA. It took some time for USA to deal with the backlash against its torture programs and the introspection on it was done only recently. Hopefully they don't take as much time to deal with NSA. But I am pessimistic on that regard since the sentiments are not as strong on this issue among the general public.

Rating: 4.5/5