Beer and Pavement

CITIZENFOUR

Posted in Film, Review by SM on October 22, 2014
Syna So Pro busks before the first Midwest screening of 'Citizenfour'.

Syna So Pro busks before the first Midwest screening of ‘Citizenfour’.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly express how much True/False means to us in terms of providing that one yearly jolt of intellectualism, creativity, and life we need at the end of every winter. Really, it’s not just that. This is a hard place in which to live. True/False makes it bearable for one long weekend every year.

However, this past year brought us the birth of our son, Theo. He’s our True/False baby, born on March 1st. The doc fest didn’t happen for us. Sure, it went on, but it didn’t happen for us. Of course, we could have gone to the Boone Dawdle for the first time, but the film this year didn’t interest us enough to bike 20 miles in the heat. Maybe next year?

So, we are long overdue for our True/False fix, to put it lightly.

That fix was supplied in the form of Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, the documentation of Edward Snowden’s coming out as an NSA whistleblower. This was an intense way to get back into the True/False groove as the fest put together a one-time (well two times, actually) screening of the highly anticipated film.

Poitras is a bit of a legend in T/F lore. She won the fest’s True Vision award in 2010 given to “a filmmaker (or filmmaking team) whose work shows a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking.” Her arguably most popular film at the fest was The Oath in which Poitras hangs out with a cab driver who was once Osam bin Laden’s bodyguard. The cab driver’s life is contrasted with his brother-in-law’s who finds himself detained in Guantanamo Bay. It’s even more intense than it sounds. Poitras also made a film about gentrification in my old home of Columbus, OH. It’s very different from her recent works, but totally a good watch, especially if you keep in-mind that this was her first film.

Citizenfour was not exactly what I expected. I honestly did not read up on it except to realize that it was about Edward Snowden in some way. Like many documentaries, I assumed it was a collection of interviews and pieces of a puzzle put together in order to recreate the events leading up to Snowden’s whistleblowing, making us all acutely aware as to how our government invades our privacy on the daily. I also caught that this was the third in a trilogy including The Oath and 2006’s My Country, My Country. However, what I was not prepared for was the amount of access Poitras had in documenting Snowden’s story.

Usually when a documentary covers a story, it comes in after the fact. There are interviews with people about what they remember. There’s archival footage or recreations. Rarely is a documentary documenting major, historical events in real time. Citizenfour does this, however. Poitras is there, in the room when Snowden is spilling the beans on how the NSA basically watches and listens to every electronic transmission we make. She follows as Snowden’s identity is revealed and he has to make a mad dash for a friendly embassy and eventually Russia. Poitras is only physically in the room with Snowden while he stays in a Hong Kong hotel for interviews with Glenn Greenwald over the course of a week+. Then, as the chase is on, she documents the fallout for various players in the game to uncover how our government watches and collects data on our every move. She communicates now and again with Snowden until she finally provides evidence of his new life in Russia.

What’s interesting is how intimate Poitras is able to get with Snowden without being intrusive. The privacy of his moment is completely documented by Poitras’ camera. It would be ironic had Snowden not asked her to be there, but he did ask her. The difference between Poitras and the NSA is that Poitras was asked to be there and to document the whole thing.

The story which evolves is really quite breathtaking. No narrative is forced. All the drama is real and that might be the scariest part. Poitras typically crafts narrative with a heavy hand. This isn’t a knock. She’s good at telling stories. With Citizenfour, you get the sense that she lets this story tell itself. She’s just there to make sure it gets to an audience.

If Citizenfour screens in your town, go see it. Several of Poitras’ films end up on PBS. So, you might be able to see it there. And don’t just watch it to get informed about the NSA. Sure, there’s that part, but it pales in comparison to the story told. Watch it for the story and do your research on the NSA.

Now I feel like I’m on some sort of list.

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