State of surveillance


Edward Snowden in Citizenfour
Edward Snowden in Citizenfour, a first-hand account of the NSAs surveillance activities.

• The gulf between what the US government says it is doing and what it is probably doing has never seemed more apparent than in Citizenfour. A first-hand account of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013, it demands us to ask why the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities have been allowed to crawl unchecked into so many spheres of our private lives.

The documentary builds like a spy thriller. Director Laura Poitras, who remains behind the camera, describes in voice-over how she initially received an encrypted email from a “senior government employee in the intelligence community” called “citizenfour.” She was chosen because of her previous work, in particular her Iraq film, My Country, My Country, which landed her on a US watchlist. The exchange leads her to Hong Kong where we meet a youthful Snowden hiding out in a hotel room. Here, we remain for a good part of the film as Snowden unfurls his story to select Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and later Ewen MacAskill and we begin to understand the enormity of the revelations.

From the outset, Snowden says he doesn’t want to be the centre of the story. Yet much of the strength of the film comes from Poitras’ portrait of Snowden as a person of integrity and courage. He comes across as calm and collected, albeit, by necessity, hyper-vigilant to eavesdroppers, epitomized by his concern about encrypted passwords or the hotel phone being hacked. In his disclosures, he is almost matter-of-fact. Even passing comments, such as how his NSA colleagues envied the reach of the UK’s surveillance system, drop like bombshells. Placed alongside the testimonies of the US intelligence community’s top brass that citizens are not being eavesdropped on, the impact is even more explosive.

While the film alights on individual stories as they flash up on news networks like the BBC and CNN, Poitras is more intent on giving viewers a visceral sense of what it was like to be in the room as the big debate surrounding privacy and surveillance starts to rage. In true vérité style, the handheld camerawork is a little rough at times, but befits the clandestine nature of the subject matter. The film ends with Greenwald’s tantalizing revelation that Snowden has inspired another major whistle-blower – the details of which are only intimated through handwritten messages on pieces of paper and Snowden’s astounded reaction.

Running at three-and-a-quarter-hours, Winter Sleep, by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a long, challenging watch, not made easier by the fact it centres on the complex, but increasingly unlikeable protagonist, Aylin. As the first snows of winter arrive, the outwardly charming Aylin – a former actor and wealthy landowner – becomes a suffocating presence for his beautiful, young wife Nihal and a looming figure of oppression in his community. The barren Anatolian wilderness with its cave-like houses provides an otherworldly backdrop as events slowly unfold indoors. A slow-burner, at times it is in danger of extinguishing itself with subtitled torrents of philosophical verbiage, but then leaps to life with some beautifully observed and quietly tragic scenes.

Robert Alstead is making a BC-set documentary Running on Climate. Support is welcome at

Leave a comment