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Does Laura Poitras’s New Film Solve the Snowden Riddle?

The filmmaker Laura Poitras is concerned with the human effects of surveillance. She wants to understand what pervasive and sometimes aggressive American intelligence gathering does to people. And she wants to understand the human beings who have created it, run it, and become disillusioned by it — men who now find themselves at war with ...

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker

The filmmaker Laura Poitras is concerned with the human effects of surveillance. She wants to understand what pervasive and sometimes aggressive American intelligence gathering does to people. And she wants to understand the human beings who have created it, run it, and become disillusioned by it — men who now find themselves at war with the system. In her new film, Citizenfour, we get unprecedentedly close to the human source — Edward Snowden — of revelations that have rewritten the way that large parts of the world understand the nature of American intelligence, surveillance, and power.

And then Poitras pulls us back.

Poitras, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, is one of the foremost chroniclers of the U.S. war on terror, and Citizenfour is the third in a trilogy of movies examining the human costs of that conflict. (Its title refers to Snowden’s moniker when he first contacted Poitras.) Poitras now lives in Berlin, where she is part of a growing expat community working on digital privacy issues. Together with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist, she serves as the primary conduit for Snowden leaks.

It bears saying that the former NSA contractor indicted in the United States under the Espionage Act chose Poitras, whose work he admired — particularly her short video for the New York Times — and knew she had some facility with technical encryption. As someone who has written about Snowden since he first appeared in the summer of 2013, I think the choice of Poitras as an interlocutor was the best of all his wildly successful gambits. Snowden and Poitras first had contact with one another in January 2013; it can be easy to forget how incredible it is that they weren’t caught by the NSA. That’s a technical feat for which Poitras deserves much of the credit.

Citizenfour is the most complete account of how their relationship developed. It is a story of great daring, one that dabbles in a conspiracy theorist’s paranoia and indeed provides a more human portrayal of Snowden. It is not a neutral film in the old-fashioned, journalistic sense of the word — and that’s not a bad thing.

It can be divided into three parts: before Snowden, with Snowden, and after Snowden. B.S. features Bill Binney — the legendary NSA crypto-mathematician turned whistleblower — and Greenwald, who argues about civil liberties from his home in Brazil. It also features the Internet activist and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, one of the film’s more interesting characters, teaching left-wing activists about electronic surveillance.

Then Snowden appears, much like a bolt of lightning. And with his arrival, Poitras must negotiate her role as a character in her own film. This is a very serious problem for Poitras, for whom appearing in her own work is anathema. Poitras is deeply aware of the observational problem of documentary filmmaking, of the way that the camera’s presence alters the reality or truth being filmed. It’s a conundrum with an analog in quantum mechanics: The measurement problem.

That she has authored multiple, award-winning articles based on Snowden-provided material further complicates Poitras’s entanglement with Snowden. Snowden, then, is someone whom she has to protect as a source and expose as a subject. That’s something of a filmic quandary.

Poitras’s solution is acting as a semi-passive observer, having the camera at her hip, not blocking her face. "The camera doesn’t have to be a barrier," she told the New Yorker. "It’s a witness." In Citizenfour, she appears most as a disembodied voice, reading eerie messages she received from Snowden via encrypted channels.

By my count, Poitras makes one visual appearance in the film: When Greenwald and Poitras first meet Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel, she is caught briefly in a mirror reflection. That moment comes just as the audience meets the source, Snowden, for the first time. He sits on a bed, disheveled, a little dazed, and obviously nervous. The effect is like a shock of the new: This thing that we thought we knew completely presented at a moment just prior to his (public) birth. He has no idea what’s coming. It’s an incredible piece of footage, which also captures the intimacy of Poitras’s cinematic technique.

The movie’s high point comes when it’s just Poitras and her subject in a hotel room. A talking head on BBC argues in the background that Snowden could have been pulled out of a book by the spy novelist John le Carré. Snowden walks around the room in a black suit jacket and black pants. He tries to get his hair to stay in place with some gel. It doesn’t go well. He holds up a green umbrella before a mirror, considering his disguise for escaping the hotel. Too much, he decides. It’s a lovingly shot scene. Poitras sees Snowden as a human being. For a moment it’s not Snowden "the leaker," Snowden "the whistleblower," Snowden "the traitor." Instead, just a goofy guy, one far removed from the world of le Carré.

And then, just as abruptly as he arrived, Snowden goes underground to seek asylum and, eventually, with the help of WikiLeaks, lands in Moscow. With the protagonist gone, the film sags a bit. Snowden reappears via encrypted chat. But he is distant, more removed. Greenwald moves to the forefront. His testimony to Brazilian lawmakers on U.S. surveillance is of a different register than the poetic footage from Hong Kong. One lives again the drama of the Snowden revelations as they played out on cable television. It’s less riveting footage than meditations on Snowden’s psyche in Hong Kong’s neon dreamscape.

Perhaps as a result, the portrait of Snowden ends up feeling incomplete. The film ends back in Moscow — after Snowden has secured asylum and the aftermath of his revelations has been documented on screen — with a meeting between Snowden and Greenwald, who reveals that he has acquired a new source high up in the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy. And so it becomes a film with an easy moral message: Snowden did this for pure purposes at immense risk to himself, and it has resulted in more like him stepping forward. That may very well be true, but it’s so unmessy that it’s almost unbelievable.

The more complicated aspects of Snowden’s personality come as a footnote. We get a brief shot, filmed with a long lens so it feels like they are surveilled, of Snowden and his girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, cooking dinner together. That Mills traveled to Moscow to be with Snowden is the film’s only real revelation, but she never appears in the movie as a subject. Mills was reportedly willing to go on camera but Poitras turned her down out of an apparent desire to keep the film focused on Snowden and, one senses, the "issues." When Snowden appears in Hong Kong chatting with his girlfriend on his laptop, Poitras retreats. We don’t know what they say to one another.

Therein lies the point at which Poitras retreats from her subject, perhaps to protect him. And, sure, it would be invasive to ask Snowden to tell us what he’s typing out to his girlfriend. But these are the conundrums of trying to establish interiority in a documentary film. And given Poitras’s humanistic commitments, it’s surprising that she didn’t explore this relationship further.

Perhaps more surprising is her unwillingness to more directly confront a bigger question hanging over Snowden: whether the use of illiberal means can ever be justified as a defense of the liberal state. Unmentioned in the film are the Chinese and Russian intelligence services, which move through its background. These organizations have similar, if not as expansive, capabilities as their counterparts in the United States, to say nothing of their ability to imprison political opponents and use physical violence against detainees with impunity. And some of Snowden’s revelations did not just deal with the gathering of intelligence against Americans but also with operations against countries such as Iran and Pakistan, both of which have deplorable human rights records and sponsor or condone violence outside their own borders.

And therein lie the questions about Snowden that Poitras — perhaps too close to the man — cannot answer. Snowden, as he was presented to the public, remains so uncomplicated that he feels flat. Some of America’s intelligence work is indeed deplorable, but so are the intelligence operations of other countries. What the film lacks is how Snowden grappled with the question of how one deplorable thing differs from another.

And in the absence of a more rounded portrait of him, conspiracies flourish. Circumstantial arguments are made about how he is a Russian agent and was recruited long ago. The wild theories don’t quite add up — which is in part why they thrive — but his defenders don’t have a lot of material at their disposal to rebut them either.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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