Who’s listening? Who’s watching? Who knows? – Citizenfour reviewed

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Movie  l  Citizenfour l  M

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor analyst, gazes humbly downwards on the poster for Citizenfour, a documentary covering the course of the leaks scandal unleashed by this unassuming geek.

But Laura Poitras’ documentary (I would highly recommend her earlier film about Iraqi elections My Country, My Country) originally began with a different subject, William Binney. Binney also worked for the NSA and was an analyst years before.

In fact, in one scene taken from a public forum, Binney argues he was the first of his kind during the Cold War, realising the importance of the digital space as the new battleground between nations.

However, in the wake of 9/11 and the increasing moves by governments – including the US – to utilise this method of analysis to monitor citizens, Binney resigned from the NSA. He is often described as a whistleblower, using every opportunity to speak out about the dangers of this non-transparent process of surveillance, justified in the name of national security or counter-terrorism.

Binney features in Poitras’ film as a regretful, almost ghostly, presence. Snowden, however, made a far more spectacular impact, deliberately setting in motion a series of events intended to inspire others to take up his cause of holding state power to account.

Incredibly, Poitras was intrumental in Snowden’s audacious leaking of highly sensitive NSA logs and material.

Chat logs appear onscreen recreating the tentative first contact made between the documentarian and a source identified solely as ‘citizenfour’.  In exchanges that resemble a particularly paranoid John le Carré novel, the NSA contractor suggests Poitras contact Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald. Arrangements are made for the three to meet at a hotel in Hong Kong – complete with spy novel code phrases and anti-surveillance measures.

Finally we are greeted by the first appearance of citizenfour, the well-spoken but painfully self-conscious Snowden.

The majority of the film takes place within this hotel room, but the sheer astonishment expressed by Greenwald at Snowden’s revelations makes this feel like a gripping political thriller.

Unfortunately, this is not a piece of entertainment, but an excoriating  condemnation of how politicians and high ranking intelligence officials have obfuscated and denied the use of metadata retention to target citizenry.

While the threat of terrorism looms large in discussions of monitoring of phone and internet activity, Snowden confirms that targets include political activists, foreign governments and international corporations for commercial advantage. Greenwald nervously jokes that Snowden has been bitten by the paranoia bug when an errant fire alarm sends him into a panic. But as their interviews progress, the hotel room itself becomes a hothouse of justified paranoia.

The objective of Snowden’s exercise is to expose himself as well as the secrets he is bringing to the media, in such a way that they cannot be ignored, even at the risk of ruining his own life. Poitras and Greenwald in turn soon become more adept at protecting themselves, as they prepare to set this dangerous media circus in motion.

The documentary leads the viewer to conclude that paranoia has infected not only the film’s principals in a Hong Kong hotel room, but the entire intelligence community. The abuse of metadata analysis points to a growing suspicion and contempt for citizens and international allies.

Poitras includes footage of counter-surveillance activist Jacob Appelbaum speaking first to an Occupy cell in New York and then, in the closing moments of the film, to members of the EU parliament, his standing improved considerably by Snowden’s leaks. Chillingly, Appelbaum outlines how citizens have come to associate liberty with privacy, but are increasingly accepting of how privacy is being circumscribed.

Citizenfour is not only an important film, but a conversation starter on the monitoring of metadata that has been buried for too long. A screening of the film in Canberra last month apparently convinced some Labor politicians to revisit the government’s data retention bill (‘Concerned about data retention bill’, Feb 11, The Age online edition).

Clearly a more comprehensive transparent conversation between political leaders and the public is what is needed.

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