I recall reading about Edward Snowden‘s revelations concerning the NSA and the surveillance apparatus only AFTER he arrived and set up camp in Hong Kong. The reality for me was that despite living in the US all my life, I knew far more about Hong Kong than I did about either Snowden or ‘big brother IS listening’.
That said, I spoke to a trusted source who said he had seen Citizenfour and considered it one the best films he had seen in quite some time. So to get this review up and running with only a little more background, I had spent about 4 plus days in South Carolina during the week before last week. But I left Beaufort, SC, on Saturday the 21st of February, to make the 425 mile drive back to Sarasota, so I’d be sure to be home for the Oscar broadcast last Sunday night.
When they announced that Citizenfour had won the Oscar for Best Feature Length Documentary I learned the name Laura Poitras. Hers was not a name that I knew. In fact, before Citizenfour, I was completely unfamiliar with any of her works. For the record, I had no knowledge of the names Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, or William Binney either.
Then I was lucky enough to be able to see Citizenfour the very next day, Monday the 23rd when it aired on HBO.
What I did know was the Mira Hong Kong Hotel. The hotel is located on the corner of Kimberly Road and Nathan Road, literally just a few steps from the most northerly exit of the Tsim Sha Tsui, MTR stop in Kowloon. I’d walked past the hotel on numerous occasions and I’m sure it was conceivable that I might have gazed up, at the upper floors of this hotel,where much of the film was shot, from standing on either a walking path in Kowloon Park (across the street from the hotel), or from the corner of Haiphong Road and Nathan Road, where the MTR exit was, and just 3 very short blocks away.
For me, the impact of the film was far greater than whether or not the film was either entertaining, or something to see for its style or amazing cinematography. The fact is that Poitras’s film showed, at least to me, what I hadn’t previously known. Yes I knew that Edward Snowden had revealed via copied documents, the inner workings of the security and surveillance apparatus ; and when he touched down in Hong Kong – it made the front page of newspapers all over the world.
But I knew nothing about the man, and would not have known him had he been standing next to me on Nathan Road in Kowloon. Of course we were not in Hong Kong at the same time, Snowden was in HK in the summer of 2013, and I arrived in Hong Kong in late October 2013.
So, in Laura Poitras’s film, Snowden is interviewed by Greenwald and MacAskill. Poitras is in the room handling the camera, but she doesn’t appear in the film at all. It is a difficult film to discuss. There is a sense of the fact that this film is not simply raw footage. Clearly editing has occurred. But not having been there, in that very room, I have no way of knowing what was edited out, or intentionally omitted.
Nor can I say with any certainty whether or not Mr. Snowden refused to answer any questions. And finally, it is clear that this film has been edited to heighten the thriller aspects of the subject, that music has been added, and that external events like hearings and depositions that happened AWAY from this room in the Mira Hong Kong Hotel, were added to the Snowden interview footage which comprised a good amount of the film’s running time.
There is also the question of whether or not, this interview was either the first, or one of a series of interviews that Snowden granted. I know for a fact, now, that Snowden would be interviewed by the New York Times columnist and author. the late David Carr. I know for a fact that Lana Lam, a reporter for Hong Kong’s major English language daily newspaper, the South China Morning Post, would interview Snowden via an online chat program. Lam met with Poitras at the Sheraton Hotel, also on Nathan Road in Kowloon, and Poitras had been involved with the setup of that talk. Which did not make it into the film.
But I do not know whether the Poitras/Greenwald/MacAskill/Snowden interview came before or after the others.
I think the film is extremely worthy of your interest. As I said above, this is not a film that will wow you visually. In fact, Mr. Snowden is not dashing, nor does he come off as some one involved in the grander term of espionage., and finally he does not emit a sense of intrigue. What does strike you is his sincerity and is apparent willingness to take ownership of his acts.
Poitras opens the film with a voice over as she is reading emails from Snowden, who called himself Citizenfour in the correspondence. In fact it took a while before one catches on that Citizenfour is not a woman. The visual during this was a view from inside of a car as it drove through one of Hong Kong’s cross bay tunnels. All we saw was the overhead lights. Only after the car exited the tunnel do you realize you are in Hong Kong.
So there is a certain element of suspense. And yes, the added in music helps. But Snowden is just a guy in a hotel room. He has a few days worth of stubble on his face, he’s wearing a white tee-shirt, and he’s discussing what he knows with MacAskill and Greenwald. Also apparent is his anxiety which shows when a normal hotel fire alarm system was being tested.
But I think that the film hooks you almost immediately, when you hear Poitras quoting Snowden:
For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, site you visit, and the subject of when you type, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but who’s safeguards are not. In the end, when you publish the source material, I will be immediately implicated. I ask only that you ensure that this information makes it home to the American public. Thank you and be careful. Citizenfour.