‘Citizenfour,’ Cinema Verité, and Using Humanity as a Call to Action

26V5151-600x340Laura Poitras’s documentary Citzenfour explores the notion of integrity in an age where online presence is often synonymous with anonymity. The film chronicles one week in June 2013 during which Poitras and reporter Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong to follow a series of encrypted e-mails leading them to Edward J. Snowden. Over the course of that week, the two helped Snowden to expose a massive global surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.

Poitras’ documentary is first and foremost a character study of Snowden–ironic as Snowden repeatedly stresses throughout the film that “I’m not the story.” But it is this lack of ego and vanity that makes his character all the more interesting. He is a former systems administrator for the CIA and perhaps the most famous whistleblower of our generation, yet his straightforward demeanor and pedestrian nervousness make him comfortingly human, a grounding anchor amidst a highball and often abstract discussion of ideals.

At the beginning of the film,  Snowden expresses the enormity of America’s intelligence. For him, the NSA’s surveillance programs articulate a vastly imbalanced democracy in which power no longer lies with the American people:

“NSA and the intelligence community, in general, is focused on getting intelligence wherever it can, by any means possible, that it believes, on the grounds of sort of a self-certification, that they serve the national interest….I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you or your account to a federal judge, to even the president, if I had a personal email.”

The film plays out like a philosophy discussion over coffee. Surveillance, to Snowden, has moral implications. He believes privacy is necessary for self-expression and freedom of thought, a refreshing notion in the Age of the Extrovert, where innovation goes hand-in-hand with constant observation. The value of privacy disintegrates as more and more office spaces are designed to facilitate group thinking and collaboration.

In Citizenfour, Snowden talks about deciding to go public with documents because of the moral implications of not acting, a sort of Kantian ethic of integrity. His actions follow from the idea that the American people have rights–to freedom and to privacy–which have been infringed upon, and which would supersede, for example, the utilitarian belief of majority rules, the traditional argument for surveillance.

Snowden is quoted by Greenwald in the Guardian, saying that the primary lesson he learned from the events presented in Citizenfour was that “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.” Snowden hopes that many more will join in the fight. In the film, he says, “Hopefully, when I’m gone…there will be somebody else who will do the same thing. It will be the sort of Internet principle of the Hydra: You know, you can stomp one person, but there’s going to be seven more of us.”


With its themes of technology, coding, and intelligent action, Citizenfour is intimately bound to Silicon Valley. It is a fireplace poker of ethical accountability. But, unlike Snowden’s view, computer science within the Stanford community is not weighted with moral responsibility. Programming and design-thinking provide ways for the individual to single-handedly solve global problems, but there is no hydra mentality on campus–no incentive to follow along in someone else’s footsteps. At Stanford, technology rewards the entrepreneur.

Citizenfour motivates its audience to fight for a different version of technology–one that is guided by principles rather than by innovation. The documentary’s power to inspire action comes from Poitras’s cinema vérité ethos, a style of filmmaking often understood as pure, direct cinema. Poitras recontextualizes the document leak as a character study of Edward Snowden, exposing Snowden’s own truth that his actions are not “special” and showing her audience that they, too, have agency to affect change.

In the documentary, Snowden’s on-screen humanity stands in contrast to the viciously authoritative documents he exposes. The majority of the film sees him cross-legged atop the bleached white of a hotel duvet, hunched over his open laptop, and dressed in a plain white t-shirt and black slacks. Shots of Snowden answering Greenwald and reporter Ewen MacAskill’s questions are interspersed with his anxious glances at his computer screen as he contains the stress and sadness of having to keep his loved ones in the dark for so long.

In “The Making of Citizenfour”, journalist and novelist George Packer faults Poitras for focusing too much on Snowden’s character at the expense of providing more detailed information to the public, her viewers:

“[T]he final result is an ending that feels as if the viewer is being shut-out rather than enclosed in it…What we get is Snowden’s reaction. Raised eyebrows. Shake of the head. Curses. ‘I can’t believe this. This is huge. This is dangerous.’”

Poitras would admit that she is much more interested in the human situation than in the documents at the center of the controversy. In a quote on the International Movie Database (IMDb), she explains:

“[F]ilming people is actually the thing that I live for. There is a kind of magic…where there’s just this incredible connection with your subjects and something profound is happening, a palpable human drama unfolding. That feeling is the compass for everything I do now.”

There’s a crystal clear moment of this in Citizenfour where Snowden is trying to glue down his hair in preparation for the barrage of media outside his hotel room. Tension and suspicion are suspended in time as the viewer watches Snowden standing in front of the hotel mirror, trying to tame his unruly spikes of hair. Offline, he’s just a human, too.

Poitras’ detached filmmaking proves Snowden’s own belief that it does not take a special person to decide to leak the NSA documents, an action he believes anyone could have and should have done. By exposing Snowden as one of us, we understand the full brunt of his argument – there’s a huge fight to be had in which everyone is welcome to participate, a fight which will grow exponentially the more people involved. At the intersection of computer science, design-thinking, and ethical curiosity, Stanford University is the perfect place to begin.


“Citizenfour” is currently playing at BlueLight Cinemas 5 in Cupertino at 2:20 PM, 4:40 PM, 7:00 PM, and 9:15 PM.

Photos courtesy of RADIUS-TWC

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