Monday, October 13, 2014

Citizenfour (2014) New York Film Festival 2014

Citizenfour is an important documentary--the buzz about it has that right. Director Laura Poitras served as a kind of fly-on-the-wall as Edward Snowden divulged his NSA secrets to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill in a Hong Kong hotel room. He shares leaked files, he explains how he did it, he expresses fears of getting family involved; Greenwald looks on amazed, MacAskill takes shorthand, Poitras trains her camera; we then watch the fallout for the primary players.

If you've paid just a little attention to the news in the last year, you know some or most of this already. Recent revelations from the film were widely reported following Citizenfour's NYFF premiere: there's another NSA leaker out there, and Snowden's partner, Lindsay Mills, now lives with him in Moscow where he has political asylum. So much for spoiler warnings.

What Citizenfour does well is hone in on Snowden and that week in Hong Kong. While he stresses he doesn't want to be the story when it comes to the government's encroachments on civil liberties, he is the compelling center of Citizenfour. But importance shouldn't be conflated with flawlessness. Watching the documentary, I couldn't help but feel that Citizenfour was as imperfect and imbalanced as it was important. By the end of the movie, it felt like a supplement to the reporting by Greenwald and The Guardian, and a means of keeping an important issue alive as other events have overshadowed it in the news.

The imbalance is apparent early on. Citizenfour throws techie jargon and info at the audience without context. The screen fills with code as if we're reading off an old CRT monitor. We see a conference for tech people that explains the importance of metadata. This is followed by a meeting with Occupy activists in which Jacob Appelbaum explains metadata. Briefly: every credit card or debit transaction, ATM withdrawal, text message, phone call, web search, and other kinds of digital info can be monitored by intelligence agencies, creating a kind of digital footprint and timestamp so your activities and location can be followed throughout the day. Appelbaum gives the info succinctly after a scene that would have been helpful to have it, and in case you missed it, metadata gets explained one more time in the last third of the film by Greenwald at a press conference in Brazil. (It's in Portuguese and with subtitles.) The issue of metadata comes up in various discussions with Snowden as well. I wondered why the same information had to be reiterated so much when just a single, succinct contextualization suffices.

Appelbaum appears again in the last third of the film, but his appearance (and an appearance by William Binney, another NSA whistleblower) is to restate the obvious idea that underlies the film: this kind of data mining and monitoring is an overreach done under the guise of protecting people from terrorist attacks, but it is also a serious threat to personal freedom in the 21st century. The redundancy is just part of the issue with the film. There's a lack in focus as Citizenfour winds down, and a looseness in how the information is conveyed. I felt like the two-hour film could have sheared at least 20 to 25 minutes and lost nothing of value.

The most focused and most compelling parts of Citizenfour are its time spent with Snowden in Hong Kong. Snowden's paranoia and concern is palpable, and Poitras captures little moments of nervousness as scrutiny mounts regarding their project in Hong Kong. Is that really just a random fire alarm on the floor? Can people really listen in on the room simply from the phone being plugged in? It's human, it's real; it's the odd way that having a face on the story adds dimension and stakes to what is disclosed. But it's not Snowden's personality that's interesting so much as Snowden is the focal point for the rest of the story that spirals out of his information leak. This is his doing, this is his story, though the expansion and exploration of what the story means for us could have been more deftly executed.

When Binney reappears late in the film, he's interviewed by Jeremy Scahill. Scahill is the journalist who penned the book Dirty Wars and who was the primary focus of the documentary of the same name, a film with which I had some major issues. In Dirty Wars, it felt like director Rick Rowley placed too much emphasis on Scahill, making the film more about Scahill's journey of discovery than the U.S. government's covert military operations. Scahill as the center dominates the larger story of Dirty Wars to the detriment of the subject matter, whereas Snowden at the center of the NSA leak makes sense since he's the leaker. In some ways Citizenfour loses some of its direction when its focus turns more to Greenwald--not when his partner is affected since it's an illustration of the repercussions faced by investigative journalists, but definitely when he's repeating metadata information in Portuguese.

With that in mind, Scahill's appearance in Citizenfour is apt in another way. Dirty Wars was also important; it was polished documentary journalism, but I found its overall approach a disservice to the material. Citizenfour is similar in that regard, and even Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer falls into the same category. (I wonder what the people at Frontline could have done with the same material.) There's an importance to the NSA leak story being covered and chronicled as it unfolded, and the movie is sure to bring attention to the issue again. There's a bravery from the participants involved, particularly Poitras, who finished the film in Berlin to ensure that the movie was not seized by authorities if she returned to the United States. The risks taken by journalists and filmmakers to expose and uncover need to be applauded and encouraged. It's this importance and this bravery that makes the film noteworthy and that's fueling the early Oscar buzz.

But I come back to the idea of Citizenfour as a supplement to the journalism--it may even be a kind of additional report itself. The big revelations from the film are already out there in the media, and there are likely other reports to follow. With the issue of its importance out of the way, there's just the matter of the filmmaking as craft to consider. On craft alone, there were a number of shortcomings I couldn't disregard despite whatever role--supplement, document, coordinate on a timeline--Citizenfour will play in the continuing discussion of privacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment