Towards the end of Laura Poitras’ excellent documentary on the NSA intel that Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald, Poitras herself and others helped leak to the public, Poitras shows clips of from a European conference on how to best counter state surveillance. These two quotes might best sum up the intention and urgency behind Snowden’s actions back in 2013:
“I believe in the rule of law, I believe in the need to conduct investigations. But those investigations are supposed to be difficult for a reason. It’s supposed to be difficult to invade people’s privacy. […] If we don’t have our right to privacy, how do we have a free and open discussion? What good is the right to free speech if it’s not protected, in the sense that you can’t have a private discussion with somebody else about something you disagree with? Think about the chilling effect that that has. Think about the chilling effect it does have on countries that don’t have a right to privacy.” –Ladar Levison, creator of the encrypted webmail service Lavabit
“I’ve noticed a really interesting discussion point, which is that what people used to call liberty and freedom, they now call privacy. And we say in the same breath that privacy is dead. This is something that really concerns me about my generation, especially when we talk about how we’re not surprised by anything. I think that we should consider that when we lose privacy, we lose agency, we lose liberty itself, because we no longer feel free to express what we think. There’s this myth of the passive surveillance machine, but actually what is surveillance, except control?” –Jacob Appelbaum, investigative journalist, hacker, and WikiLeaks representative
“Citizenfour” is one of the many tremendously important films that few Americans will actually see, whether it’s because they’ve never heard of it, or because they just keep putting it off, knowing that it is important but constantly being preoccupied by the innumerable other pressing matters of their lives and by other equally worthy consciousness-raising films. For me, the film felt important simply because it supplies a narrative for the Snowden leaks, resisting that universal tendency for crucial political events to fade irretrievably into the recesses of our collective memory. Just as the citizens of Oceania can never remember anything significant about the past in 1984, already we have trouble remembering what “that whole Snowden thing” was about, and why it matters. Poitras’ film fights against this public amnesia–an amnesia that enables the state to do things like conduct surveillance on millions of Americans and wage drone wars in Iraq, Yemen and Syria with little public opposition.
Also notably: in her film, Poitras tackles the interesting issue of media appropriation and distortion, specifically regarding our understanding of Snowden himself. When he asked Poitras and Greenwald to help him blow the whistle on the American government, Snowden directly asked that The Guardian do everything possible not to make this an affair about one man–Snowden himself–and, instead, make it about the NSA, spying, and the issue of state infringements on democracy and individual freedoms. We know that the exact opposite happened–the situation has been packaged by the media as a story about patriotism and/or treason by Edward Snowden, which marginalizes the actual issues so that we, the public, have trouble understanding and remembering them. Poitras focuses on this phenomenon with constant close-up, solitary shots of Snowden changing his clothes, grooming his hair, inspecting his face in front of a mirror. She has made a film that is not about Snowden but about how the media zeroes in on the body and the name that is Snowden.