A real-life international espionage thriller centered around the eight days that filmmaker Laura Poitras, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden spent in a Hong Kong hotel room while the NSA domestic surveillance story broke. It provides a rare experience: as Poitras has put it, “the moment when it was happening, when [Snowden] had decided that he would walk away from his life. He knew there was no way to go back on that.” Snowden is very much a talking head, but such a head, and such talk. The man knew what he was about, and why, and how to go about getting it done. (Short version: he wanted to help keep the electors and the elected from becoming the ruled and the rulers.) For her part, Poitras knows that the viewer will be able to take only so much of Snowden’s predicament: stuck in a hotel room, watching the world react via cable news. So she wisely (and regularly) takes us outside for a breath of context. The result is alarming in the best sense of the word.
Citizenfour is a real-life international espionage thriller centered around the eight days that filmmaker Laura Poitras, journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden spent in a Hong Kong hotel room while the NSA domestic surveillance story broke. It provides a rare experience: as director Laura Poitras puts it, “The moment when it was happening, when [Snowden] had decided that he would walk away from his life. He knew there was no way to go back on that.”
Matthew Lickona: How did you convince Snowden to go on camera?
Laura Poitras: He contacted me anonymously, and we were in dialogue for several months before he said, “You should know that I don’t intend to remain anonymous.” He was worried that if he didn’t come forward, there would be a massive leak investigation that would hurt other people. But when I said I wanted to film him and understand his motivations, he said no. He didn’t want to be the story. The story was about what the government was doing. But I said, “Listen, you’re going to be the story no matter what. The press is going to speculate about your motivation, and it’s important for you to articulate why you are taking these risks and coming forward. I was able to convince him.
ML: How did you get through those eight days, pass the time?
LP: I think he was trying to do a bit of a brain dump. He wanted to transmit as much information as he could in a short amount of time, so that no matter what happened in the next day or the next hour, we could continue to report. So, a lot of the time was just what you see: he’s debriefing Glenn, he’s debriefing Ewen, he’s doing interviews with me. Plus, I was making sure I had a copy of the footage outside the hotel, in case we were raided. So, the time passed very quickly.
ML: I was frankly amazed at Snowden’s composure. It showed how clearly and systematically he was able to present data to you. He never short-circuited.
LP: I’ve never filmed anybody who speaks in perfect paragraphs before. He has a really impressive mind, and he’s a good teacher as well. He was clearly risking so much, but that was not at the forefront of his mind. I think he’d already made the choice, and so even though he didn’t know what would happen to him, the purpose of our meeting was the information. So, that’s where he was putting his energy.
ML: From a cinematic standpoint, I was really helped by those long shots of the data collection and interception centers around the world. They helped to ground things.
LP: Most of that was done by Trevor Paglen, a renowned photographer who has been trying to map the architecture of the intelligence world. I’m a huge fan of his work. He cleared his schedule for months for us, and went to places that were not easy to find or to get to. But the footage of the Utah Data Center is mine. I started filming the construction in 2011. [Former NSA employee] William Binney kept talking about the facility they were building out in Utah. I went out there and just drove around until I found it. Usually, you can’t get too close to facilities like that — it’s sort of their mothership for the collection of intercepted communication — but since it was still under construction, I don’t think they expected anyone to show up with a camera. I had a camera with a long lens, and I asked the neighbors to get on their property, and they let me.
ML: Watching it, I started to think that the only way you could ever beat the system is to know everything Snowden knows.
LP: You don’t have to be a genius. There are tools out there that everyone can use to keep their communication private. On our website, we have a Surveillance Self Defense Guide that we link to for the EFF. One of our hoped-for outcomes is that more people will use those tools.
ML: The fear I had upon leaving the film is that people will think, You can’t beat this. Data collection is everywhere. Privacy is an antique notion.
LP: I think privacy is a fundamental human desire and need. I think people in countries where it’s denied do feel violated and will resist. If you talk to Muslim Americans in the U.S. who were targeted with surveillance right after 9/11...there’s a very corrosive impact that it has on people. I think that if people say privacy doesn’t matter, they either haven’t been targeted or they’ve been asked the wrong question. If you ask someone for the keys to their house or their online banking password, or if you can turn on the camera in their computer, I think they will say no. It will be seen as a violation.
These are technologies that are moving faster than humans have been able to process. What Snowden revealed gives us an opportunity to reflect and to make some choices about what we want our government to know about us. I do think that there will be a growing market for privacy.