Edward Snowden didn’t know how well he had chosen when he contacted Laura Poitras to (as he describes it) “quarterback” the release of the trove of information about NSA surveillance activities he had compiled. What has transpired since Poitras answered Snowden’s first anonymous e-mail is historic—a set of events based on a series of individual choices no one could have predicted, and that have changed our world in ways we are only beginning to understand.
As is well known by now, that first encounter resulted in Poitras and her colleagues in journalism breaking stories of global importance; at the same time, she worked with a small, handpicked team to create CITIZENFOUR. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott called it “a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.”
CITIZENFOUR reflects the historical moment in which it was made, and influences it at the same time. It is a film that is deeply concerned with democracy, and may well become one of the defining documents of the early 21st century. This is Poitras’s third film in what she describes as a post-9/11 cinematic trilogy: My Country, My Country, nominated for an Oscar in 2006, and The Oath (2010) are the first two, and they are also crucial viewing.
As a trilogy, they stand as a singular achievement: one artist’s decision to use cinema, arguably the most powerful and far-reaching art form, to understand complex, contradictory global forces as they play out in individual lives. Few artists have the audacity, the commitment, the capacity, and the imagination to work in such bold and longitudinal terms.
This year, in a unique feat unlikely to be repeated, Laura Poitras and her team have swept through the journalism and film awards seasons simultaneously, garnering the highest honors everywhere: two Pulitzer Prizes, a George Foster Peabody Award, a Gotham, DGA, BAFTA, Indie Spirit, and now Academy Award for Best Documentary, all honoring her single-minded focus on surveillance in a post-9/11 world. At events, this outsized accomplishment is usually recognized with a spontaneous standing ovation, testament to the power and integrity of Poitras’s work as a journalist, an artist, and a human being.
When this happens, Poitras is visibly moved, and often also visibly uncomfortable in the spotlight, insisting that her full team stand alongside her and share recognition for having taken personal risks to contribute to the project. She’s uncomfortable with being the focus of too much attention and being celebrated, a quality she shares with Edward Snowden—both of them emphasizing repeatedly, “I am not the story.” CITIZENFOUR brilliantly grapples with this paradox: Certainly Snowden and Poitras are central to the story, but they are wary of a culture where a focus on the individual can cut both ways, with celebrity on one hand and character assassination on the other.
The film includes a frank discussion between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald about properly managing Snowden’s introduction to the world. They rightly fear that the extraordinary importance of Snowden’s information could be undercut by attempts to discredit the man himself. The release of Poitras’s first video interview on the Guardian’s website in June 2013 was an attempt to let Snowden speak for himself, and give viewers the opportunity to make up their own minds.
The film has the same mandate. And it is important for us as viewers to understand our own role as participants in the film: We are invited to understand how we are all implicated in the story, and ask whether we have a responsibility to seek a publicly debated balance between individual rights and security in a networked age. For those who understand the Internet to be a new kind of public commons, we can see how its uses and safeguards will decide the fate of individual rights, free expression, rule of law, and access to opportunity. Justice hangs in the balance.
I think of Poitras’s practice as a kind of Zen of storytelling. She is mindful of her circumstances, her intentions, her values, and her narrative possibilities. Through her lived choices, for instance, in moving alone to places like Baghdad (My Country, My Country) and Sanaa, Yemen (The Oath), to more deeply understand the context in which her characters are living, she sets the conditions for intersection with her chosen themes and the extraordinary people who are most deeply living them.
It is the reverse of seeking story—in some profound way, Poitras bends her stories to her, and in doing so, she changes the tenor of the entire experience. Through her compassionate witnessing, she returns a deeply moral, human quality to events and themes that are all too often abstract and inaccessible. This kind of deeply humane, committed practice is the heartbeat of artistic expression, creating an experience of engagement where authenticity and empathy meet and become irrefutable. If, as Cornell West has said, justice is what love looks like in public, then CITIZENFOUR is filmmaking as an act of justice.
People often ask what art, and film in particular, can do to propel more opportunity, better-functioning democracies, and access to fundamental rights. CITIZENFOUR offers one answer. The process of filmmaking itself mirrors the work of justice building; articulating and refining beliefs and values; building knowledge, networks, and movements; and building leadership by putting yourself into the work. Amid a growing global conversation about inequality and injustice, CITIZENFOUR focuses on creating conditions for expanding justice.
Edward Snowden didn’t pick just anyone. In his judgment, an artist (and not just any artist, but an independent filmmaker) would set the strategy and hopefully marshal the forces needed to prevent the one thing Snowden feared—that no one would care. What is unfolding before us was only possible because of the autonomy, artistry, intention, and deep humanity Laura Poitras brought to this moment.
CITIZENFOUR received major support from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms and Internet Rights initiatives. JustFilms director Cara Mertes has worked with Laura Poitras since 2002.
As part of our recent NetGain event, Laura Poitras and Christopher Soghoian presented a short talk about government and corporate surveillance of the media, nongovernmental organizations, and citizens and the implications for free speech and free thought.