Directed by Laura Poitras.
With Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Appelbaum, Ewen MacAskill, and others.
The Watchers, the Watched, and a Future of Walls with Ears
The first thing I learned from watching Laura Poitras’ long-anticipated new film, Citizenfour, is that the term ‘amnesia‘ refers to the Tor onion network, which provides a user with a non-persistent operating system environment in which dissidents and privacy defenders, and the like, can browse the ‘Net and send emails without risk of data later being recovered from one’s computer, because, once shut down, Tor forgets everything. (Or so we were told, until even the protections of Tor were shown to be highly vulnerable at the end nodes, and that spooks were actively engaged in cracking it.)
However, the appearance of Tor and amnesia early in Citizenfour gave me an a-ha moment because I’d just had published my review of Peter Carey’s new book, Amnesia, but neglected to include this Tor reference in my piece, although it now seemed like such an obvious thing to have done. Of course, though Carey’s main character, an Assange-like female hactivist, uses Tor, the title principally refers to how quickly Australians forgot the deposing of sitting Prime Minister Gough Whitlam back in 1973 at – some say – the insistence of the Nixon/Kissinger government. Anyway, I sighed and whistled and moved on.
That marvel retired in my mind, I then picked up rather quickly on some of the technical aspects of Citizenfour. The voice over narrative, with Poitras quietly reading aloud her first emails from Edward Snowden; the ominous synthetic soundtrack that references deep, troubled shit at work behind the scenes; the various whistleblowers contrasted with the lying spooks before Congress, juxtaposed with the claustrophobic feel of Snowden in his Honk Kong hotel room; the lay out of the ‘stars’ – Greenwald, Binney, Appelbaum, etc; and the overall home video quality of the experience. I drew no conclusions right away from this, but merely noted them and their intended affect.
The film is the third installment in Poitras’ trilogy of the post-9/11 American global crackdown on anti-imperialists, starting with ‘terrorist’ al Qaeda cells, moving to ISIS, and soon including whistleblowers and dissidents. Her previous films – My Country, My Country and The Oath – were moving portraits of the devastation that the so-called War on Terror has wrought on everyday people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Viewers are often presented the horrors of war through the eyes of the warrior, the trials and tribulations of their conscience at work, such as with American Sniper. But Poitras’ small budget, localized picture of families and individuals who’ve had the shock and awe of war thrust upon their already-vulnerable lives is a welcome anecdote to the dominant psychopathic self-pity that whines, “Saddam left us no choice; he had all WMD; we couldn’t wait for a mushroom cloud of cannabis to overcome us.” Or whatever.
In Citizenfour, Poitras continues to focus on one individual to explore the consequences of opposing mighty power, but now we drill down past tactics and strategies and into policy and implementation, the mother lode of cynicism and ultimate aphrodisian power at work. In the film, Greenwald refers to this emerging stuff as “chilling,” but I’d say it’s far more catastrophic than merely chilling; it’s whole new climate change, baby.
Well, then, what did I think of the film? Do I believe it deserved an Oscar? Did the film add anything to the stream of revelations that commenced in early 2013 as a result of the events recounted in this film? Does this help or hinder the work of the The Intercept, where Greenwald and Poitras (and Jeremy Scahill), have struggled to bring in the kind of readership and activist base they may have imagined when they formed their super group, The Revelations Five?
To the first question, yes, I liked the film; I like Poitras’ understated style and naturalism. I like that what the film – all of her films, actually – accomplish: a basic humanization of subject, the foregrounding of everyday people, rather than a fireworks display of political intellectualism, and the resisting any temptation to get swamped down in policy machinations (although, of course, that’s all there). On the visceral level I liked My Country, My Country more: You could feel the pressure – from gathering nebulous policies, small rooms with tight camera angles, and the endless ache of decision-making on the local level. You get a similar feel from Snowden’s hide-out at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, where he meets Poitras, Greenwald and the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskell, but Hong Kong’s not under siege, the hotel room is not a home, and all the principals, including Snowden, get to go home when it’s over, even if, in Snowden’s case, it’s a new home (which the film tidily depicts in the end, peeking in through a window at Snowden and his girlfriend making a go at domestic tranquility in their Russian digs).
There were also some quirky moments that had resonances for me beyond the film. Such as Greenwald’s early fumbling with the file structure on his laptop, followed not long after by Snowden chiding Greenwald for leaving a card full of documents in his SD slot. For some reason, this reminded me of the later slip up (or it is IMHO) when Greenwald having written a piece a couple weeks before in the Guardian indicating that the NSA has been able to break encryption and after revealing GCHQ secrets, Greenwald’s clearly hapless lover is sent with a thumb drive of encrypted material through the GCHQ-infested Heathrow, on his way to a flight back to Rio, where he not only gets stopped and his data seized, but it’s discovered that he has passwords written down on a piece of paper. Given Snowden’s revelations and Poitras’ extensive experience being stopped at airports dozens of times – before the NSA revelations were even extant – this is head-shaking stuff. You begin to wonder what advantages releasing the documents to Greenwald over Assange are. At least the latter knows how to take data security seriously.
On the other hand, having said that, one could argue, and I would listen, that the hotel room SD card gaffe and the later Heathrow incident point up just how fragile the ‘national security’ situation is. We all gaffe like this all the time, leaving cards and drives in online computers, writing down passwords, thinking nothing of passing through an airport as a citizen of Fredonia (“land of the free and brave”). In this sense, it’s a startling reminder of how much trust we have invested as a society in our overseer authorities, such that even as we are exposing their dark criminality we have a foolish expectation that revelation means repenting. But, you know, a Constitutional lawyer, who has seen all this crap before, in a more nascent form through the Church hearings, should know better.
Did it deserve its Oscar? Who gives a shit about Oscars. Although Poitras should have won something extra for that black outfit with elbow-length gloves and deep-net stockings. But seriously, some of these nominations and prizes are a complete joke. If we haven’t learned from Kissinger and Obama’s Nobel peace prices that these are all largely staged political events by ‘Art Community’ elites, then we have learned nothing much at all. Frankly, The Green Prince was the best documentary film I saw last year and that wasn’t even nominated – hell, I’m not even sure it was distributed much beyond boutique markets and the ever-dwindling torrents sites.
If an Oscar can do any good, one hopes it will alleviate some of the pressure that the Intercept is said to be under to produce a profit. If Greenwald’s Pulitzer for Nowhere To Hide and this Oscar, and all the other glitz the supporting cast of Intercept film-makers and writers, can’t get significant new numbers to visit site, it’s hard to imagine what more will.
Which brings up a sensitive point. The film’s distribution and availability to a wider audience was shamefully lacking in its execution. It’s actually difficult to understand how a film that so few people have seen could have garnered the inertial energy to snowball into a Oscar prize. Even now, a film so ‘important’ and ‘must-see’ is already well on its way to the same oblivion as The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, and yet, the implications of Citizenfour and its findings are far more devastating than those other films.
Sometimes an Oscar can be a film’s kiss of death, when it comes to follow-on anticipated activism resulting from it. So far, I see no sign that Citizenfour is bound to be the next Silkwood ringing home the truth about Three Mile Island and the nuclear fuel horrors awaiting us. This is looking more like just one more debating trophy Greenwald won as a prep school version of Alan Shore: Here he is with his prize-winning closing argument about American Indifference to Tyranny. Of course, the biggest problem Greenwald might have is people seeing Pierre Omidyar as his Kool-Aid drinking buddy, Denny.
Did the film add anything to the stream of revelations that have come since early 2013? No and Yes. In terms of pure revelation the film really didn’t add much layering or nuancing or new understanding. For anybody literate, the accounts posted by Greenwald and company have a far more devastating impact than the visceral simplicity and honesty of this film. But the film, again, humanizes its subjects. Snowden is not the lower class cast-off with a second-rate education that his detractors have painted him as, but a warm, sharp, articulate and brilliant young man full of passion for democracy and privacy, self-consciously aware that he has likely sacrificed any future comfortable life in order to shake up the system. (In the film, he even describes himself as a kind of Christ figure.) What a tragedy it would be to see it evaporate from indifference and revelation fatigue.
I had two favorite moments in the film. The first comes comes early on, when not Greenwald or Snowden tête-à-tête, but with Jacob Appelbaum’s address to a keen but meager crowd of activists and journalists, when he explains the dangers of data “linkability” and “metadata in aggregate.” Appelbaum tells the crowd,
The concept of linkability…take one piece of data and link it to another piece of data…metadata in aggregate over a person’s life. And metadata is aggregate in content. It tells a story about you, made up of facts, but not necessarily true. So, for example, just because you were on the corner, and all those data points point to it, doesn’t mean you committed a crime. It’s important to note that if someone has a perception of you as a suspect it will follow you around for the rest of your life. Just keep in mind that what happens with you [now] with fingerprints, retinal scans, and photographs – that is what is going to happen to people in the future when they resist policy changes and when they try to protest in a totally protected and constitutional kind of way.
This description of aggregate metadata and its consequences reminded me of a book I recently reviewed (but not yet published), The Internet Is Not The Answer by Andrew Keen, in which he is discussing the on-going development of Artificial Intelligence as it relates specifically to Google’s algorithms. Keen paints a dismal picture indeed, saying of this metadata aggregation that,
By thinking like us, by being able to join the dots in our mind, Google will own us.
The second favorite moment, related to the first, came when Edward Snowden, answering a question from Ewen MacAskell, succinctly summarized the stakes of the revelations, the battle at hand, whether ordinary people care to be revolutionaries or not. Snowden said:
It all comes down to State power and the ability of people to meaningfully oppose that power. And I’m sitting there every day [at NSA contractor Booz Hamilton] getting paid to design methods of amplifying that State power, and I’m realizing that if the policy switches, that are really the only thing that restrains these states, were changed, then you couldn’t meaningfully oppose [the State any longer].
Probably Citizenfour is worth the viewing just to be reminded yet again what the stakes are in our current totalitarian pandemic whose algorithms may remain unknown but whose outcomes are entirely predictable.
Even Elvis was clued in on the future. Maybe that’s why they had him tracked and whacked?