Just hours before his sudden death on Thursday, February 12, beloved New York Times media columnist David Carr moderated a TimesTalk interview at the New School with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, who appeared via satellite from Russia. The discussion centered around their Oscar nominated documentary “Citizenfour.”
“There’s something about the way you made that movie and what it reveals that makes it a little hard to sleep,” Carr told Poitras at the beginning of the discussion. “Part of it is the realization that we live inside a turnkey security apparatus. It’s also the technique of filmmaking.”
Poitras was already several years deep into making a film about surveillance in a post-9/11 world when she began receiving mysterious emails from someone calling himself “citizen four.” This man was Snowden, who had also reached out to The Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald, whose childhood hero was Daniel Ellsberg, had been naturally eager to break the story. Snowden was ready to blow the figurative whistle and reveal to the U.S. public the covert ways in which their government was spying on them. As a private security contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden was in a position to leak highly classified information about the government’s surveillance programs to the media.
Greenwald journeyed with Poitras to Hong Kong to meet with Snowden, and the result is a nail-biting thriller that takes place in Snowden’s hotel room over a period of eight days. Poitras’ camera captures Greenwald’s careful unveiling of the NSA scandal and the backlash that followed. Both “Citizenfour” and Edward Snowden’s revelations have shifted global consciousness. The underlying message seems to be the importance of awareness and action; if we value our rights, we can make an impact.
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion:
“It’s not a film about me. It’s a film about us,” Snowden said. Appearing via satellite to participate in the TimesTalk, Snowden has a patient, boyish face. He was vehement about drawing attention away from himself, not wanting to “be” the story. Instead, Snowden made sure to mention an Ecuadorian government member who was punished for helping him. Greenwald described Snowden’s only fear when they were on the verge of revealing the NSA dirt: that no one would care. Snowden worried more about the American public looking upon the story with apathy than he did about the unraveling of his own life. Greenwald clearly admires this selflessness, describing the whistleblower as “fearless.” Snowden expressed humbly that he was incredibly satisfied to be a part of something larger than himself.
Dealing with the stress
Carr asked Greenwald how he remained so calm throughout the film, in spite of the enormous risks they were taking. “I masked my anxiety well,” Greenwald laughed. A clip from “Citizenfour” was projected over Snowden’s satellite face, featuring one of the funniest and tensest moments in the film. A fire alarm goes off as Snowden and Greenwald sit talking in Snowden’s hotel room; it stops; then goes off two more times. Suspicion and paranoia mount each time it rings. Snowden grows nervous, and although Glen coolly suggests it might just be a test of the alarm system, his face is increasingly somber. Snowden explained his response during the scene was plenty justified; if they were going to arrest him, they wouldn’t barge into his hotel room. Instead, they’d find another excuse to draw him out.
Snowden was fascinated by the stress responses of each person in their situation. His own response, luckily, was simply to transmit information to journalists as quickly as possible. He experienced what he calls “psychological depersonalization.” He felt he was born to do this job.
Poitras’ filmmaking technique
“Citizenfour” is the third film in Poitras’ trilogy about post-9/11 America. The first film, “My Country, My Country,” focused on the Iraq War. The second, “The Oath,” was about Guantanamo.
Poitras had already been targeted as a suspect and placed on an NSA watch list before she began filming “Citizenfour.” In fact, that’s why Snowden claims he chose her, for her expertise. “She chose herself,” Carr interjected.
Poitras wanted to film Snowden’s story in the style of cinema vérité. She would not interrupt the intense conversations between Snowden and Greenwald to ask Snowden for his backstory or explanations. “My tendency would be to squeeze him like a grape,” Carr said. But of course, Poitras didn’t do that; she simply watched (and recorded) as an event of extraordinary journalism unfolded.
Snowden’s thoughts on Obama
The Obama administration has been very serious about cracking down on whistleblowers. Yet as Snowden explained, this is a complicated process. Presidents are being frightened to death about their need to assess threats. New presidents are subverted and told they must be extra vigilant. Many people working in the NSA have been doing so for 60 years, and of course Obama is comparatively brand new.
However, Snowden is disappointed Obama seems unwilling to stand up for our rights. “What do we mean to our government?” he asked. And what impression are we giving other countries about us? Our president could end mass surveillance or close Guantanamo Bay with a flick of his pen, and yet he has not.”
Why Snowden appeals to the American public
“He looks like every Midwestern couples’ grandson,” Greenwald joked, before describing how Snowden’s personality surely worked as an advantage to their story. It’s easy to dismiss someone’s point of view by citing “mental instability,” but Snowden is modest, articulate and appears incredibly sane. Greenwald knew the government would have a hard time discrediting him. His normalcy was powerful.
Carr declared Snowden’s presence in the film a reminder of “the importance of being human in the middle of this.” Carr then channeled all the mothers in the audience (as he put it), and asked Snowden whether he was getting enough to eat. Fortunately, Snowden seemed well fed and described himself as never having been busier with work in his life.
Why should we care if we’re spied on?
Greenwald made a point of scoffing at those Americans who would have preferred to remain ignorant of these revelations, or claim they don’t mind being spied on because they have “nothing to hide.” “We all have things to hide — not just those of us who are terrorists and criminals,” Greenwald said. “There are plenty of things you would only share with your spouse, your doctor or your psychologist.” Greenwald professed the only people with nothing to hide are the boring ones.
What can we do to avoid being spied on?
“People care about being able to communicate without being judged or monitored,” Snowden said. He knows how dangerous even sending a simple text message can be; phone companies own the wires that transmit these messages, and the companies hand all that information over to the government. “We need big companies like Apple, Google and Facebook to give up the ability to knowingly undermine our rights,” Snowden suggested. “They should not be willing participants.”
Snowden also recommended downloading a free encrypted web browser called Tor.
What’s the bottom line?
“There are more of us than there are of them,” said Snowden to thunderous applause. Poitras’ film “shows people you can stand up to the U.S. government and [still] find a way to live a fulfilling life,” Greenwald added. Snowden felt this endeavor worth risking his freedom, and was resigned to being arrested. He has never regretted his divisive actions, despite having to flee the country and leave family and friends behind. Greenwald and Poitras worried Snowden would end up in shackles, as the U.S. government usually gets its way. But of course, he has evaded their capture and now lives in Russia with his long-time girlfriend Lindsay, who gave up her own life to join him. “Burning bridges is a great way to drive you forward,” Snowden said to audience laughter.
“‘Citizenfour’ has something hopeful in it,” said Poitras. “People are willing to be courageous and say something about what’s wrong in the world.”
The hour-long conversation is available to watch below in full.