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Courtesy of HBO Films

May 5, 2015

Exposing Big Brother: Citizenfour

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Laura Poitras’ 2006 film about life for Iraqis during the Iraq War got her an Academy Award nomination for best documentary — and it also got her a place on a US government watch list. She was marked as a highest-level national security threat, and detained and interrogated at the airport multiple times. In 2013, after Poitras had already begun research for a film about government surveillance, she received an anonymous email from “Citizen Four,” asking for her help in releasing classified NSA documents to the public. Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald traveled to Hong Kong to meet with the source — the now-famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Edward Snowden. With Citizenfour (2014), the third in a series of documentaries about post-9/11 America, Poitras tells of the NSA’s mass surveillance, the revelation to the public and the aftermath.

Citizenfour has a factual and informative narrative. It is also a fascinating and chilling science fiction story come true. Poitras interweaves first person narration, TV footage of congressional hearings and media coverage, chat transcripts and clips from interviews with Snowden to depict a chronological story that leaves no doubts about the terrifying extent of the NSA’s spying. We get to “meet” Snowden when Poitras and Greenwald do in the hotel in Hong Kong ­— Poitras filmed all of the initial interviews with Snowden in the hotel, where he revealed how the NSA monitors the public en masse, and why he wanted to make that information public.

Even if you closely followed the news when the leak happened two years ago, watching the events unfold in the film allows for a whole new understanding of the gravity of the situation — namely, the fact that the NSA intercepts the vast majority of device-based communication in the United States. This means that the government can go back and read through any individual’s communications, and if that individual for any reason falls under suspicion, the government can monitor all further activity in real-time. Insert 1984 reference here.

In cinéma vérité fashion, the story speaks for itself without any sensationalism or tactics to create an ominous mood. The only elements that feel a bit cinematic are a few strategically placed shots of eerily deserted NSA surveillance bases around the world and the use of a low, rumbling, staticky song occasionally in the background. The truth of the NSA’s pervasive capacity for spying apparently needs no exaggeration, as is evident when Snowden unplugs the hotel room phone and drapes a blanket over his head while using the computer.

In addition to inducing paranoia and outrage, the documentary also inspires self-reflection. Do we even care if we are being watched? Of course we do, but are we actually going to change our online behavior? Delete our Facebook, encrypt our emails and make 30-character passwords? Probably not. Luckily, Snowden does not ask us to. He recently told John Oliver in an interview, “You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing. If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”

Citizenfour’s portrayal of Snowden emphasizes his bravery and boldness in standing up against government violation of privacy, exposing the NSA’s lies and leaving behind his family and life to go into hiding for an important cause. Obviously, not everyone agrees with this narrative — Snowden has had his motives questioned and received a lot of criticism for revealing too much about the US’s surveillance of foreign countries, which is not something the documentary addresses.

But call Edward Snowden what you want. Call him a whistleblower, call him a spy, call him a hero, call him a traitor. President Obama called him “not a patriot,” but I disagree. If Snowden had not released the documents — and if Poitras, Greenwald and other journalists had not risked their own safety to report it — we would have no idea of the extensive governmental violation of our privacy.

So I think that everybody should watch the amazing accomplishment that is Citizenfour. We cannot allow the NSA’s actions to slip back under the radar thanks to our own apathy. The American public should continue to demand our right to privacy — before mass surveillance morphs from a covert, scary abstract we’d rather not think about to a simply accepted norm.

Katie O’Brien is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com. 

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