“In the end if you publish the source material, I will likely be immediately implicated. I ask only that you ensure this information makes it home to the American public. Thank you and be careful, Citizenfour.”
In her soft voice, Laura Poitras begins her latest film, "CITIZENFOUR," reading from an email she received from a National Security Agency whistleblower, who later revealed himself as Edward Snowden.
"CITIZENFOUR" is the third film in Poitras’ trilogy about post-9/11 America. She had already started a documentary on government surveillance when Snowden reached out to her in January 2013, turning her film upside-down. “The stakes are real. It’s not just, 'Oh here’s a good story, I have good access,'” Poitras said in a recent phone interview. “I know that he was absolutely putting his life on the line. … There was just a palpable sense that this was not just about getting a scoop.” Snowden’s revelations of mass government surveillance roiled the intelligence community in the summer of 2013, igniting a national debate about privacy in a time of heightened fears of terrorist attacks.
The stirring film shows Snowden’s side of the story and takes the audience on a journey to Hong Kong, where Poitras, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, who first reported on Snowden’s surveillance documents, met for the first time.
In a hotel room above the city, Poitras turned her camera on to capture their first meeting as it unfolded.
Poitras said Snowden and Greenwald knew she would be filming the encounter. She had been filming Greenwald since 2011 for her surveillance documentary, and since Snowden intended to come forward, he agreed to be filmed as well.
”It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that the camera came out immediately,” said Poitras. “My role in that moment was to document it.”
The powerful scene provides insight into Snowden’s motivations for taking the NSA documents and reveals a remarkably calm and articulate man. But Snowden’s demeanor shifts after he reveals himself as the leaker and is unsure of where he will go next.
Poitras’ camera captures Snowden as he changes his appearance before going into hiding, fussing with his hair in the mirror and fiddling with an umbrella to shield his face.
In a rare moment, Poitras’ voice comes out from behind the camera, asking Snowden what he is feeling in that moment. “What happens, happens,” he says.
Compared to her other two documentaries, “My Country, My Country,” about the Iraq War, and “The Oath,” which explores the naval station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Poitras is a character in her own film, narrating the timeline of events.
The common thread throughout the films is adding a human element to stories that dominate the news.
“It’s very much a film about people who sort of see something that they feel to be wrong and make personal sacrifices to expose that,” Poitras said in a question-and-answer session after an Oct. 22 screening at E St. Cinema.
Also in the audience was William Binney, a former NSA official who has spoken out against government surveillance. Snowden knew to contact Poitras after viewing a New York Times short documentary she filmed that profiled Binney.
After the film, members of the audience surrounded the 70-year-old Binney, who sat in a wheelchair, thanking him for his role in revealing surveillance programs.
“I think there’s a level of really angst, about this program, that was existing,” Binney said in a phone interview. “I think this film will raise that level on a much larger scale with the public.”
One of the audience members who thanked Binney was Todd Pierce, a retired Army major from St. Paul, Minn. Pierce likened Snowden to Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
“Snowden has revealed a similar type of information that should cause us to change some of our policies that are very unsustainable and self-destructive,” Pierce told CQ Roll Call after the screening. “And not just defer to the military and the security services for what our foreign policy should be.”
However, policy changes have not come to fruition , in part because of the bitter divide between Snowden’s admirers and adversaries.
Earlier this month, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Snowden should be charged with murder in addition to espionage, alleging that military personnel will be killed or injured because of his revelations.
Poitras told CQ Roll Call that if Rogers was upset about the data breach, he should take issue with the journalists who published the documents.
“I think Mike Rogers would also like to put me and Glenn in jail,” Poitras said. “The reporting we’ve done was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for public service and it’s clear that what has been published has gone through a journalistic review process.”
Binney said lawmakers would benefit from watching the film and learning the motivations behind Snowden’s actions.
“I wish that more lawmakers were sitting in there watching it,” said Binney. “They aren’t because they still want to have plausible deniability.”
"CITZENFOUR" is playing at E Street Cinema until at least Nov. 6.
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