In October I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the opening night screening at DOK Leipzig film festival. The film was the much-anticipated Citizenfour, the third part of Laura Poitras’ 9/11 trilogy and the film’s first screening in Germany. We were lucky enough to watch the film with a video introduction from Edward Snowden himself, speaking from Russia, where he is currently in exile, explaining his whistleblower motivations and the importance not necessarily of watching the film but of understanding the issues behind it. As you are probably already aware, those issues are mostly to do with surveillance.
As a UK/EU citizen, I was somewhat skeptical about the film. Were all these NSA issues really relevant to me? Surely this film was aimed at American mountain dew drinkers sat behind their screens 22 hours a day downloading nasty things? But as the film played out I realised that this was much more of a global issue. I also considered my friends in Germany who had told me that they’d received fines for illegally downloading movies and music onto their computers. Of course it’s wrong to download copyrighted material for free. But it made me feel uneasy that the German government was monitoring my friends’ internet connections closely enough that they knew exactly at what time the latest Taylor Swift album had arrived on their hard drives.
Snowden does not lend himself to film. He is very young; at the time of the leaks he was only 29. As the subject matter of the film is invisible (in some sense information is quite the abstract noun these days) most scenes consist of Snowden sitting in his Hong Kong hotel bedroom with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian reporters who initially broke the story, just talking and talking. Explaining the intimate details of filesharing and data leaks is not necessarily something relevant or interesting to those to whom the issue pertains, although the result of wanton metadata of course is. But Snowden knows all this already; that’s why he leaves the job to the journalists. He knows that it’s their responsibility to get the story out and that he wouldn’t be able to do it alone.
It is interesting that, following the media frenzy at the time of the leaks, most people watching the film already know how the story concludes. Poitras therefore had an incredibly difficult task in maintaining the audience’s interest, which she does to a certain degree, tensions rising with every press encounter and every border crossed by the press team. Every phone call is a threat. Snowden emails his wife to tell her he is never coming home. Snowden becomes increasingly more disturbed. If only this were fiction.
The film certainly hammers home the point that issues of data security are relevant for us all. The fallout is huge and global. In Berlin, the German government discuss what actions they need to take. There is a national furore in Brazil. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this film for its cinematic techniques and compelling story, it is one that is a must-see for anyone involved in issues surrounding data security. Snowden makes us see that this is a form of invisible invasion – the kind that America fears the most – and the risks inherent in it are ones which everyone, globally, not just in the US, need to take more seriously than they (and most certainly I) might have previously.