Citizenfour: A Film Review
The Academy Award-nominated documentary, Citizenfour, premiered at the Screening Room on January 26th.
The film was accompanied by a talk given by Dr. David Lyon, Queen’s professor in the Department of Sociology, Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre, and author of the forthcoming book, Surveillance After Snowden.
Citizenfour presents us with the initial revelations of the NSA surveillance scandal from the perspective of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden. Snowden contacted film director Laura Poitras in January 2013 via encrypted e-mails to elicit her help in revealing what he viewed as the unjust and dangerous scope of state surveillance. In June 2013, Snowden, Poitras, and journalist Glenn Greenwald got together in a hotel in Hong Kong for eight days in order to blow the lid off one of the most shocking state secrets of our time.
The film is a piercing look inside the gravity of the issue, the motivations of Snowden, and the perilousness surrounding the release of this information. Poitras’ fly-on-the-wall technique puts the viewer in the room with Snowden and Greenwald as this whole scandal comes to a head via Greenwald’s initial publication of selected documents from the “Snowden Archive.”
Throughout the film, the pulsing soundtrack and the blunt reality of the situation nurture within the audience a heavy sense of unease and paranoia. This feeling is not easily shaken. One would be hard-pressed to look at their cell phone after seeing this film without a hint of suspicion. The unbelievability of the sheer weight of what was revealed contrasts poignantly with the seeming normality of Snowden and his motivations. It’s the inhumanity of state power versus the blatantly human being — the single protagonist versus the ever-present-yet-never-seen omniscient foe. For Snowden, it wasn’t about being the center of attention; he merely thought people should know. This powerful theme arouses strong realizations within the audience — such entities exist and we are not powerless to take a stand against them.
There were several scenes in the film where this sense of suspense and paranoia was palpably present. At one point during their hotel room discussions, Snowden unplugged the room’s phone stating that they could use it to eavesdrop so long as it was plugged in. Seconds later, the fire alarm starts to sound. Tension as to whether or not they should leave the room builds until finally Snowden plugs the phone back in and calls the front desk to inquire. The explanation of “fire alarm testing” does not go nearly far enough to abate the growing suspicion that that is exactly what they want you to think.
This is not the first time that director Laura Poitras has been nominated for an Academy Award. Not only did her film about the Iraq war, My Country, My Country, land Poitras on the Best Documentary list, but it also landed her on a U.S. Homeland Security watchlist. Citizenfour is the third part in a trilogy about America post-9/11. The other two parts were My Country, My Country and The Oath, a film about Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror.
From the droning heavy blanket of the soundtrack to the piercing suspense of the reveal, Citizenfour permeates with thoughts of suspicion, paranoia, despair, anger, and flickers of hope. These feelings are both deliberate and warranted – we should be paranoid and we should be angry, though that should not drive us deeper underground but out into the open where we can reclaim our power, our privacy, our autonomy, and our liberty.
The discussion presented by Dr. Lyon
Dr. Lyon presented the audience with some perspective on how Canada fits into all of this. Aside from the now obvious fact that Canada (along with the rest of the Five Eyes) is very much a part of this widespread surveillance, the discussion also brought up some particularly interesting legal questions.
One of the most interesting aspects of this talk relates to the connectedness between Canada and the U.S. As we all know, the majority of Canada’s population lives within close proximity to the Canada-US border. According to Dr. Lyon, many of the fibre optic cable routes that connect Canadians to other Canadians dip down into the US. An example he gave was that if you were going to send a message from the University of Toronto to the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park (essentially a block away), that message would pass through the US and US data centres before arriving at its destination. Legal questions abound. Who has jurisdiction over that message? Which country’s laws apply to the state appropriation of that message’s content? Does either the sender or the receiver have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the contents of that message? And if so, then against whom – their government or the government of another state?
Another interesting aspect of the discussion relates to the relationship between the state agencies and the telecommunication companies. These companies are the ones who give up this information to the government. Since the data is stored on their servers, is it their property? To whom should these corporations be accountable, their customers or the government?
As aspiring lawyers in an age of rapidly increasing technological communicative capacity, these are important questions that we should be thinking about.
Andy Gibbons (2L) is Co-Culture Editor of Juris Diction.