Imagine sitting front-row for a major historical event, camera in hand to document as something of great significance occurs, capturing it in real time. This is the situation that documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras found herself in during 2013, when she was contacted by an anonymous source with damning information about secret surveillance programs being run by the National Security Agency. Filming literally as history unfolded, Poitras not only captured the leak as it hit the international media, but also the man responsible for it - an unassuming computer professional named Edward Snowden.
Her Oscar-winning documentary ‘Citizenfour’ is the result, a shocking and exhilarating film told with an immediacy most documentaries tend to have to fabricate. Rather than telling the story after the fact, the film covers its subject as it occurs. Nothing is told in retrospect or with talking head interviews, but with raw footage shot in secret and under great threat. In fact, it’s a wonder that ‘Citizenfour’ exists at all. Before starting on the film, Poitras was already on a watch list from the CIA because of her previous work, which was part of the reason for Snowden contacting her. In order to protect her work, she has relocated to Berlin so that U.S. officials can’t seize any of her footage. In June 2013, along with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, she relocates to Hong Kong to begin working through Snowden and his material, the location chosen because of its diplomatic safety from the United States. There’s a tremendous sense of paranoia and danger in every frame, all the players aware of the perilous tightrope they’re walking. Snowden’s information is vast and horrifying, laying out the scale to which the NSA have invaded the privacy of, not just private American citizens, but private citizens around the world. Suddenly every phone, every camera and every computer is a portal through which to be observed, but rather than being a work of fiction, it’s frighteningly real and very immediate.
While other documentaries of late have excelled as slick and cinematic works, ‘Citizenfour’ is unapologetically raw, only relying on immediate footage and material to tell its story, and it makes it a thrilling experience. The film itself is an historical document, and as much of a character as Snowden himself, so that you become as aware and concerned for the safety of the people behind the camera as those in front. What becomes most affecting though is how human the film is, rather than solely political. The camera holds on Snowden as he realises he will never be able to back away from his decision to leak this information, an immediate and entirely human reaction to suddenly being caught in the unforgiving tide of history. Snowden insists early on that who he is and his story are not important, but it’s the human and the personal that make ‘Citizenfour’ a much more powerful and affecting experience. We can objectively be horrified by the revelations in the leaks, but we had that reaction back in 2013. It’s seeing the human beings and the sacrifices they have made (personally, professionally, emotionally) in order to protect what they see as basic human rights and liberties that really help the film hit home. These should be characters in a spy novel, and what is happening to them should be fictional embellishments, but they’re not. They’re real and sudden and caught right there on camera.
‘Citizenfour’ is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, but more importantly it’s also a vital historical document.
There have been so many remarkable documentaries of late, but none have had the raw brute force of ‘Citizenfour’. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking, but more importantly it’s also a vital historical document. It lays out with tremendous clarity the enormity of the surveillance being conducted without permission or discernible reason against private citizens across the world in the name of national security, and the figures instrumental in making sure we all know about it. Laura Poitras and her team have sacrificed their freedom, their loved ones and their relationship with their country to tell this story, and in doing so have crafted one of the most important documentaries ever made. This is one of those films that not only must be seen, it needs to be seen.
PICTURE & SOUND
Madman have released ‘Citizenfour’ on DVD only, but because of the raw nature of the footage, the standard definition 1.85:1 doesn’t detract from the film at all. In fact, it works well with the rough quality of the film, with no detrimental loss of detail or clarity. The same counts for the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with most of the sound coming directly from the raw camera footage. The sound is very direct, and any dialogue that is hard to hear is complimented by subtitles.
Apart from the theatrical trailer, there are no extra features on this disc.