This weekend, the NY Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ third film in her trilogy about the post-9/11 world. It is compelling, infuriating, and breathtaking in its scope. The film takes us behind the scenes as NSA Analyst Edward Snowden — who first contacted Poitras using the name “Citizenfour” — and reporter Glenn Greenwald release the documents that blew open the NSA Surveillance program we now know as Prism.
Poitras has been the relatively silent partner in this trio — until now. What she does with this documentary is to take the stories that ran in the Guardian, The Washington Post, and countless news outlets around the world and remind us that this is far from over. (The film makes clear that other whistleblowers have come forward.)
But more important is how she humanizes Edward Snowden. The 31-year-old is perceived as a grave-enough security risk by our government to be charged with treason and have his passport confiscated, but comes off in the film as a regular guy who knew too much and was scared of what our government was doing in. He got in touch with Poitras (because she was on a watchlist and detained due to her previous films) and started the process of making the NSA surveillance programce a global news story.
Because Poitras was recording the revelations as they were happening, you feel Snowden’s nervousness being stuck in a Hong Kong hotel room, longingly looking out the window as the first articles roll out. You hear him talking to Greenwald, saying that he is not afraid to stand up and say why he did what he did. You understand that he left his whole life behind without a word to his parents and girlfriend because he fully believed that the knowledge of these programs had to be released to the world. (He has since been reunited with his girlfriend in Russia.)
While Poitras tries to document the story with as much distance as she can, it’s hard because the story is about her too. She’s the storyteller as well as one of the subjects, and it is a testament to her skill as a filmmaker that she is able to not make the story too personal about her, Greenwald or even Snowden.
Rather, Citizenfour is really about the world we live in, and damn, it reminds you once again just how scary this world can be. It opens October 24th in NY and LA and is a must-see.