Citizenfour (2014)


Director: Laura Poitras

This award winning documentary about the rise of mass, suspicion-less surveillance is centred on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose 2013 revelations confirmed that despite official denials, the US and UK were widely using their ability to intercept data from the phone calls, emails, and internet searches of ordinary citizens. The extent and implications of his disclosures are only beginning to be understood. As a film about human freedom in a broader sense, Citizenfour expanded and illuminated a question that I have been exploring in my practice: How and why does a person completely immersed in circumstances that compel one kind of action break the routines of his life and act in a different way?


All of Poitras’s films are in some way concerned with the impact of large institutions on the individuals they influence and condition. In Citizenfour, that intuition is the state, and I think what is singular about this film is the way it manages to evoke the kind of presence the modern state is fast becoming - an abstraction with enormous coercive resources at its disposal, everywhere and nowhere, driven further by the heady potential of what is now technically possible. The filmmakers themselves, along with Snowden, seem to be struggling to grasp its boundaries and shape.


I sought out this film in order to deepen my understanding of the subject matter, but I found that the artistry of the filmmaking also affirmed the way I want approach my own work. Poitras’s restrained style fits the unstated subject of the film, which is, essentially, integrity. For the most part, she allows Snowden’s thinking to unfold before us. The camera is held still for long periods, and narrative passages are limited to brief quotations from emails. She uses the tools of her art – music, editing, camera movements – with almost imperceptible subtlety. Finally, she leaves us without an uncertain ending, which is where we enter the story.