With the first two documentaries in her post–9-11 trilogy -- My Country, My Country, a portrait of Iraq under American occupation, and The Oath, which focused on two Guantánamo Bay prisoners -- Laura Poitras seemed to be making a bid for the title of film's most vigilant observer of American foreign-policy excesses. An Academy Award nomination and a MacArthur “Genius” grant later, she seems to have comfortably assumed that mantle -- but her third film on the subject resonates far beyond the scope of America’s military interventions in the Middle East. A meditation on how technology can be abused by power, a diagram of how power enacts itself through structures, and a sketch of one individual willing to throw himself into the cogs of said structure, Citizenfour, Poitras’s latest, examines the broad ramifications of the seemingly omnipresent assault on privacy in contemporary America -- and the world.
See also: Our Citizenfour film review
Poitras was one of the first journalists contacted by Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who blew the whistle on the NSA’s secret PRISM initiative, a widespread electronic surveillance program that gathers data on American citizens. The film provides an unprecedented level of intimate access to Snowden -- much of it reveals Snowden explaining PRISM to Poitras and then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald while preparing the press leak from a Hong Kong hotel room. It also brings a wider narrative into focus. Poitras opens with William Binney, the former NSA official who has become an outspoken critic of the scope and methods of NSA surveillance. Technology -- its advances, capabilities, and problematic uses -- are central to the film’s concerns.
“I think when a new technology emerges, it has the potential to disrupt things,” Poitras told me recently. “When you look at the coverage of the Vietnam War, versus how wars are covered now -- there was something incredibly raw about when you could first bring cameras into the field and see the horrors of war. That impacted people. It made the public feel differently about war, as opposed to this more corporate, distant version of war that we see on TV now.”
Poitras offers some incisive points concerning the institutional co-opting of technology throughout history, a phenomenon that includes particle physics leading to the atom bomb, trains facilitating the Holocaust. “The internet is being commercialized and militarized by various governments.” Poitras explains that a crucial component of Snowden’s decision to leak NSA documents was his desire to fight the co-opting of the internet. “Glenn [told Snowden], early on, ‘You could end up in prison, which is the maximum violation of your privacy.’ Snowden's response was that he remembered when the internet was a great source of freedom for humanity, and he sees it now as a tool for surveillance. He finds that profoundly disturbing, and he thought drawing attention to that was worth it.”
One of the reasons Citizenfour is more than just another post–9-11 exploration of American overreach is that privacy -- especially the infringement upon and commodification thereof -- now plays a central role in how so many powerful institutions in the U.S. function. Those include not only government agencies but also private corporations like Google and Facebook, whose revenue models hinge on the mining of user data. Many Americans, especially young ones, responded with a shrugging of the shoulders to the PRISM revelations -- “Facebook and Google already have all my information,” the refrain went, “so who cares if the government has it too?” Crucially, Poitras sees a distinct difference, one that bears highlighting.
“I do think there's cause to be concerned about what Google can do with the information it has on you,” Poitras said. “It's frightening, but in a different way, because Google has less power than the government. The relationship with Google is consensual...But if you ask people to put cameras in their homes, or ask for their email passwords, they'll resist that. I think privacy isn't a matter of taste, but rather a fundamental human desire and right, and if you breach it in certain ways, people will respond and feel violated.”
Poitras argues that privacy is often the proverbial canary in the coalmine: “In any regime that removes certain rights or privileges, state surveillance is always one of the first things that happens.”
Poitras is personally aware of the effects of such surveillance, and of the increased scrutiny that comes from being outspoken in these affairs of state: Well before she knew Snowden, she had landed on a U.S. government watch list, and she's routinely stopped and searched when traveling into and out of the country. A few years ago she moved to Berlin, in order to protect source material for a project she was working on, and it was there that Snowden first reached out to her. It was apparent that working with Snowden would place Poitras under far greater observation -- but she was undeterred.
“I've been working on these issues for a long time, so the feeling, as an American, that this country is drifting -- morally -- away from basic principles like the rule of law is very concerning,” she explains. “I feel like I'm in a position where I can contribute to a conversation that may shed some light on the human implications of some of these policies. I've been on this path for a while. There was a high degree of risk in this, but I also felt that with the magnitude of these disclosures, moving forward was a no-brainer…there were risks for the journalists, but the risks were far greater for the source.”
That’s not to diminish the sacrifice Poitras herself has made -- as she admits, “There were moments of real tension and stress, thinking about how the implications of this stuff would be really intense and dangerous. It will change my life moving forward.” Indeed, her life has changed -- but due to the risks she and her source have undertaken, the lives of every American citizen have changed as well.