Coming to theatres today, October 24: CITIZENFOUR
Laura Poitras’ in-the-moment chronicle of Edward Snowden’s revelations made its debut earlier this month at the New York Film Festival. It has also screened at the London Film Festival, at special pre-release events around the country, and will be part of DOC NYC’s Short List net month.
The third part of a trilogy on post-9/11 America, following MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY and THE OATH, Poitras’ newest film is also, out of necessity, her most personal so far. Already having ended up on government watchlists for her previous work, interrogated at borders and having her footage confiscated, the director was contacted by an anonymous source within the intelligence community using the eponymous handle. Employing encryption technology, they began a tense correspondence with the acknowledged aim that Poitras, as a journalist, would be free to use leaked information in whatever way she saw fit. Though she never expected to find out the source’s identity, much less meet him, that’s exactly what happened, as chronicled in this astonishing film. On Citizenfour’s advice, Poitras contacted The Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and they set out to Hong Kong to meet the man who the world would find out is Edward Snowden. Despite his genuine concerns about not wanting to become the story himself, Snowden’s belief in transparency above all else results in the filming of his debriefing over several days in a hotel room, leading up to his decision to reveal his identity and to seek asylum outside of America. The effect is remarkable – while audiences are by now very familiar with the information he provides here, Poitras adroitly conveys the immediacy of those revelations, and, strikingly, constructs the film as the media – and the world – react to the initial leaks. Even more effective is the smart balance achieved between these real-world espionage elements – where a hotel fire alarm sets everyone on edge, expecting the CIA to bust down the doors – and the upending of these expectations – where one might expect a tension-filled scene of Snowden rushing through the streets of Hong Kong to make his escape, Poitras instead focuses on the affable young man primping in the mirror, attempting to subtly change his hair and appearance prior to leaving the room. And though the filmmaker can’t help but be part of this story, she is careful to include herself just enough that it makes sense without detracting from the core of the film – something which which other filmmakers often struggle. The overall result is a cogent, gripping work of documentary as journalism that demonstrates Poitras as one of our best filmmakers.