Edward Snowden is arguably the most famous whistleblower of the twenty-first century. For the first time ever, he bares all in Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR,” an unprecedented look at the events surrounding his unauthorized release of classified NSA documents. The film is revelatory not only in its political truths but also in its subtle examination of Snowden’s character and motivations. Poitras manages to conduct a harrowing autopsy of the U.S. government by way of a character study as the film unfolds with a thriller-like pace.
“CITIZENFOUR” world premiered at the New York Film Festival yesterday. After, Poitras took the stage with Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who originally broke the story, and other members of the documentary team to discuss the challenges of taking on such radical subject matter. There was a surprise guest appearance by members of the Snowden family, too. Below are some takeaways from the conversation.
Who is the real Edward Snowden?
“So much has been said about Edward Snowden–a lot of it bad, but a lot of it really good. I felt like this was really the first time that people got to see who he really is in an unmediated way so they could make up their mind,” said Glenn Greenwald, one of the film’s major protagonists. “I always thought that the most powerful part of the story was not going to be the documents or the revelations, as important as those are. It was going to be the power of the story. The acts of this very ordinary young man who decided very consciously to sacrifice his whole life for a political principle.”
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Even as Snowden was so careful to direct public attention away from himself in order to emphasize the issues at hand, Poitras shined the spotlight on the importance of whistleblowers like him. “This film is really about people who have the courage to come forward. This is about the ways of intimidation for whistleblowers,” she said. Greenwald added: “Edward Snowden–and people like him– are owed all of our gratitude because people who wield power will inevitably abuse it in severe ways, and they can do it without transparency. Whistleblowing is one of the very few avenues we have left. I know that this film is going to empower and embolden huge numbers of people in the world.”
The film was made in secret
“This is a film we had to make as quietly and as secretively as we could,” said Poitras. “We broke the rules of filmmaking and finished it just a couple days before it screened here. And as you can see in the film, there are things that are still unfolding.”
There’s a classified government “watchlist,” and Laura Poitras is on it
“There are more than 1.2 million people on the largest known watchlist in the U.S.,” said journalist Jeremy Scahill. “People can be ‘nominated’ to the watchlist for an uncorroborated Facebook post. When officers stop you, they’re instructed to copy your phone, take all of your contacts, copy your thumb drives, take your pocket litter. The government has a secret lawbook of rules you’re not aware of. The fact that it’s top-secret is an injustice.”
“It’s personal, because I’m on this watchlist,” Poitras said. “One of the experiences I had when I was being detained at the border repeatedly is that I would ask why I’m on the list. They would never answer. And journalists were reporting about that, and would say to me, ‘Well, the government doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a list.’ This is a really terrifying thing. There’s a watchlist that exists that the public doesn’t know about. None of us can challenge it.”
“One of the things that these watchlist numbers do is make so manifestedly clear how continuously the U.S. government lies about what it’s doing,” said Greenwald. “When I first looked at these documents and saw that the U.S. government was able to monitor 1 billion calls from each device simultaneously… you immediately realize, without much difficulty, how completely absurd it is. They claim, ‘Oh, we’re only seeking to monitor the communication of terrorists.’ One of the critical things is that it really starts to make people much more skeptical about the things they’re being told, not only by the U.S. government but also the ‘actors’ who play journalists on TV.”
Laura Poitras is the most ‘badass female filmmaker’
Scahill, the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Dirty Wars,” said, “There’s been a lot of attention paid to Kathryn Bigelow…. It sparked this discussion about why are there so few female directors. Kathryn Bigelow was held up as this example of what is possible. But one of the awards she received she dedicated to the U.S. Intelligence Committee. If we want to look at who the ‘baddest-ass’ female directors are–or even the ‘baddest ass’ director in general–it’s Laura Poitras.” Of Poitras’s technique, Greenwald added: “She just stands away and lets the camera show you and lets you make up your own mind. I always thought that the more people that could make up their own minds about Edward Snowden– rather than having it made up for them–the better off we will all be. I think this film accomplishes that really brilliantly.”
Snowden’s family supports his ideology
Lonnie Snowden, Edward Snowden’s father, took to the stage following a round of resounding applause from the audience. “I would like to personally thank Laura and everyone for this wonderful piece of work,” he said. “The truth is coming and it cannot be stopped. I believe there’s far more.”