Monday, June 22, 2015

Citizenfour and the end of intimacy


Citizenfour (2014) is a film that seems to unfold in real time, as if the plot were revealed to the filmmaker at the same time as the audience. The filmmaker is in the story and while never shown is directly and intimately involved. In the film’s opening sequence, she reads aloud the electronic communications sent to her by her source. The filmmaker is Laura Poitras. The source is Edward Snowden.

From a documentary point of view, Citizenfour is the record of an event that may yet shape the future of our democracies: the 2013 meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong between Poitras and Snowden. Later they are joined by Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. From that initial meeting over the course of several days and the exchange of information that took place came revelations about tools like xkeyscore and programmes like Prism and Tempora, and about the extent to which a global network of electronic surveillance established and controlled by the United States and its allies reaches into the lives of ordinary people all over the world.

The Hong Kong meeting is at the heart of the film, and will justly command its place as a document of genuine and lasting historical interest. But Citizenfour is also, and I want to suggest more poignantly, the story of multiple exiles. Snowden's, who will most likely never set foot in the United States again unless he is a prisoner, but also Poitras', who, after years of harassment by border authorities as a result of her work has moved to Berlin, and Greenwald's, who discusses with Poitras at one point how it would be imprudent to return to America for the time being.

The United States is to be understood in the film both as the literal place Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald were born, but also as a power that reaches outwards, exercising surveillance, threatening extradition, interfering in your work wherever you may live.

It is a truism to observe that the more the internet has insinuated itself into the fabric of our lives, the more vulnerable we have all become to being spied upon and monitored. Hence the unsurprising mundaneness of crime-thriller scenarios and representational conventions in films like Enemy of the State (1998) or the Bourne Identity (2002) with which most people have become tritely familiar. Yet no other film before Citizenfour – not even Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation (1974) or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s celebrated The Lives of Others(2006) – had evoked for me the sense of claustrophobia and oppression or the full intimacy of the intrusion in the personal by the surveillance apparatus.

Control is a force that prevents communication by forcing us to self-censor: and so Citizenfour focuses on the difficulties of the exiled in talking to one another. There are long electronic trails prefaced by blocks of encrypted text, sometimes resulting in failure when it cannot be confirmed that it is safe to talk.

The main character, Snowden, is both present and absent. He speaks through Poitras’ voice in the first act, when he is still known only by his handle, ‘Citizenfour’. He occupies the screen for a full hour in the second, confidently at the beginning, then more and more anxiously as the two alternate futures he had anticipated – imminent capture or a protracted, possibly life-long seclusion – draw near him. He disappears again in the third, as Poitras can no longer reach him. Thus, we are unable to be with him during those forty, undoubtedly surreal days he spent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Nor do we witness the circumstances of his settling into a new life and a new kind of normalcy after the granting of his temporary Russian asylum. Here the film loses itself somewhat, suspended between the clinical political essay and the impassioned documentary orphaned of its central character.

When we encounter Snowden again, it’s by means of an extraordinary shot through the kitchen window of his new home. Here we find that he has been joined in Moscow by his long-time partner, Lindsay Mills, whom he had left before travelling to Hong Kong without a word of explanation. This was so he could carry out his plan without implicating her. The two are making dinner.


The camera and the microphone used to be the main tools for electronic surveillance, which has always placed cinema in a somewhat awkward and structurally ironic position with regards to these issues. When we are immersed in the lives of the characters of ordinary narrative films we are not just implicitly cast as voyeurs, but also as omniscient, all-reaching government spies. The silent shot of Snowden and Mills filmed by a camera placed in the darkness outside their Moscow home reproduces this relationship in the era of computer surveillance, when seeing is no longer the principal or most effective way of knowing. The image is no longer essential or even useful. We can tell more about you by your metadata.

Outpaced, outmoded, cinema struggles to express this reality except by resorting to older tropes. Shooting Snowden and Mills as if they were under direct visual monitoring by the agents of a secret police gestures metaphorically at the scenarios described in the film by Snowden. In our surveillance paradigm, new and even more ruthlessly pervasive technologies of intrusion are able to capture, by plugging into your search history along with your communication patterns, not just whom you consort with and the content of your speech but also your desires. If Citizenfour tells this story imperfectly, it’s because we haven’t yet developed an adequate language for it.


Originally published at Overland.

13 comments:

Mark Hubbard said...

[Observation.] IRD read a good many of my posts against our (ruthless) tax surveillance state, and the Internet has become a major source of information for them (including social media).

What do you think of that?

And the fact that I have no right of silence against IRD, no right of judicial review against their actions, the Department has almost unlimited powers to raid without warrant, and the burden of proof is even turned against me. That I have no right at all to be left alone by the state via them, though I harm no one.

Your post sets out the contradiction of the Left who don't want their lives surveiled, but are quite happy mine is on the altar of redistribution. I can't help but think, especially with your citing one of my top ten movies, Lives of Others, your concern is overdone.

Nicely written though.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Interesting parallel. I'm not terribly concerned with IRD using your public social media postings as supporting evidence that you're wealthier than you are willing to disclose to them.

Hiding money from the tax authorities isn't a form of dissent or expression. It's just fraud. The powers of disclosure of the IRD I suppose *could* be used to intimidate or persecute (say, if a vocal critic of the government were suddenly audited, for instance), and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a powerful agency occasionally abuses its prerogatives, but as for the exercise of those powers in general, I'm not against it.

Mark Hubbard said...

All the good work of your post, which I agree with 100%, totally undone in one comment, Giovanni.

(And please read my disclaimer at the bottom of my every post: I'm scared of IRD, you bet I am, and do my taxes conservatively. Though, of course, lost in your brutal cult of redistribution you entirely missed the point, which is an individual's right to be left alone by the state, if they constitute no harm. So I take it back; your concern is not overdone, it's hypocritical.)

Have a good one.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I "constitute no harm" by virtue of my existence, but I'm still compelled to fill out the census. Similarly, the powers of the IRD are limited to ascertaining your income for levying purposes. So, nice try, but money isn't speech. Though "Brutal cult of redistribution" is a lovely phrase I'm going to hug on cold winter nights.

Mark Hubbard said...

This is where you are wrong, re your statement "Similarly, the powers of the IRD are limited to ascertaining your income for levying purposes."

Per my post on that dreadful piece of American imperialism, FATCA, if you'll allow me to quote myself (then I'll disappear):

"To every one of the Left who protested against the GCSB, NSA, PRISM spying trilogy in New Zealand, understand that through the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the US and NZ governments’ over FATCA, our government is using the huge powers IRD have to spy and exchange information outside the purview of the Privacy Act, to implement an American spy operation in our shores that has nothing to do with the New Zealand tax-take. If a government can corruptly bypass the rule of law for this, they can do it for anything else, demonstrating why a taxing authority must never be given the powers they have been given in the West; the powers of the full surveillance state."

The tax state is at the heart of our twenty first century surveillance state and the basis of the powers it has grabbed for itself to justify the state totally stripping me of my rights and privacy.

If you're interested - I know you're not - from my post here:

http://lifebehindtheirondrape.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/fatca-nz-officials-report-crime-that.html

Giovanni Tiso said...

"The tax state is at the heart of our twenty first century surveillance state and the basis of the powers it has grabbed for itself to justify the state totally stripping me of my rights and privacy."

If the IRD is being used to conduct surveillance on matters outside of its purview, that's an abuse and it goes right into the system I'm describing. But you seem to be against the IRD conducting its regular business.

Mark Hubbard said...

Yes, for the same reason I'm against the census. I'm a minarchist and don't recognise the right of any state to strip me of the right to be left alone when I am harming no one. I believe in liberty based on self-reliance and the voluntary transactions of capitalism: classical liberalism.

Now I've got to go to work ... oh, but you'll love my blog post going up tomorrow - I've written 'us' into my novel ;)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Okay, so basically your corrective rant here is predicated on the assumption I ought to share your libertarian views? Good to know. How useful.

Mark Hubbard said...

No. Just pointing out a contradiction.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It would only be a contradiction if I agreed with your ideas, which I don't.

kylejits said...

Without wishing to post in support of Mark, the statute that governs the IRD and their powers gives them more power in many areas than the police. They can come into your house, search it, take documents etc, if the Commissioner thinks that they need to do so in pursuit of their work.

"Under section 16 of the Tax Administration Act 1994 (TAA) and Part Four of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012 (SSA) the Commissioner, or any authorised Inland Revenue officer, has powers to fully and freely access places and documents for the purpose of inspecting any documents, property, process or matter which are considered necessary or relevant for the purpose of collecting any tax or carrying out any function lawfully conferred on the Commissioner."

- Kyle

"Section 16(1) is a warrantless power of entry. This means that, except for private dwellings, the Commissioner does not need to obtain a warrant to access all lands, buildings and places and to all documents."

It's an interesting curiosity and would probably concern us more if it was used at all frequently.

How that relates to CitizenFour I have no idea.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"which are considered necessary or relevant for the purpose of collecting any tax or carrying out any function lawfully conferred on the Commissioner" seems the key phrase there, although the exercise of power being what it is I wouldn't be surprised to hear it has been abused.

Barry said...

LOL @ Mark Hubbard's joke of a political philosophy.

> I'm a minarchist and don't recognise the right of any state to strip me of the right to be left alone when I am harming no one.

You're no advocate of "small" government, because you believe in the biggest government program of them all: Property law. You don't want to be "left alone". You want the state to violently attack people to enforce your perceived property rights.

> I believe in liberty based on self-reliance and the voluntary transactions of capitalism: classical liberalism.

Trade isn't voluntary: People engage in trade purely because they are coercively prevented by the state from simply using the whatever they are trading for.

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