Filmmaker, Laura Poitras, had been working on a film about surveillance for two years when she was contacted by someone using the name “CitizenFour”. The contact was a man and he knew about Poitras because she had been the target of US government surveillance and had steadfastly refused to be intimidated.
CitizenFour revealed that he was a high level NSA analyst and that he could expose the massive amount of surveillance of Americans (and others). Poitras persuaded CitizenFour to let her film him.
He agreed and Poitras along with Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald, flew to Hong Kong to meet CitizenFour - otherwise known as Edward Snowden.
CitizenFour is a truly remarkable documentary. It is nothing short of incredible to be in the hotel room with Poitras and Greenwald and hear Edward Snowden tell his story. The film feels like a thriller - it almost doesn’t feel real.
Once they have heard Snowdon’s story (a story of a lifetime), Poitras and Greenwald have to think on their feet. How should they present the story? How far should they go? When should the identity of CitizenFour be revealed?
This is no easy decision for either the journalist or the filmmaker. They are as aware as Snowden that, once they let the genie out of the bottle, none of their lives (or the lives of their loved ones) will ever be the same.
They will likely be on a government watch list forever. A fact that adds an even greater layer of tension to a film that is pretty intense already.
As we all now know, Snowden had an extremely disturbing tale to tell. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the US government used complex surveillance techniques to spy on the lives of ordinary American citizens.
This film reveals just how much information is collected - via emails, texts, internet searches and telephone calls. It is all extremely unsettling - to put it mildly.
The scenes in CitizenFour that feature William Binney, a crypto-mathematician who served as Technical Director at the NSA, are absolutely fascinating. Binney worked for the NSA for over 30 years. He designed much of the infrastructure for automating the Agency’s worldwide surveillance network. He retired in 2001, after raising concerns about domestic surveillance.
CitizenFour made us all aware of a range of issues concerning our right to privacy. I started watching this film with the opinion that if a government wanted to spy on me that would be okay - but they would be in for a pretty boring time. If you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear - right? Or is there?
By the end of CitizenFour, it was clear to me how dangerous such levels of surveillance are. For if ever we need to protest about our governments, the technology now exists for such a protest to be quashed before it has even begun. And that is deeply worrying.
World-Changing Doc Recommendations
CitizenFour is part of the documentaries that change the world sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
I would also like to include the following honourable mentions: Dear Zachary, Food Inc., An Inconvenient Truth and Bowling For Columbine.
Do you have any filmmaking documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.