Director Laura Poitras
Germany USA (114 mi) 2014 d: Laura Poitras Official site
This is as much a glimpse into the future as anything you’re likely to see at the movies, where honestly, this will play just as well on a laptop or any sized computer screen as a theater experience, as what we’re dealing with here is coded in such technical terminology. Perhaps this is the 21st version of Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974), only with more chilling implications. While the whole concept of Windows computer technology was supposedly to open doors and avenues into new terrain that was previously unavailable and off limits, creating a multitude of endless possibilities where curiosity would only be rewarded, the idea of looking out into open cyberspace also allows other unnamed entities, otherwise known as governments, to look in at you, since the computer is the device that keeps us all connected. It’s a hard to conceive idea, but this is a film that specializes in the latest, most sophisticated surveillance techniques ever devised by humankind, where this window into each person’s personal identity and information is just like wiretapping every citizen without a warrant. Perhaps the strangest piece of sci-fi in this film is the extent to which these individuals protect their secrecy, where literally any and all electronic gadgetry can be used as an eavesdropping device, where rarely has paranoia been elevated to this level of counter sophistication in order to prevent detection. The third film in a post 9/11 Trilogy, following MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY (2006), about life for Iraqis under American occupation, which follows a Sunni Arab doctor as he prepares to run for the early 2005 elections in Iraq, a film that got the director placed on watch lists at airports when entering the country, where she has been stopped and detained regularly ever since, but was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, also THE OATH (2010), which documents the legal ramifications of an Iraqi detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as an enemy combatant, the first to be tried by U.S. military tribunals, eventually transferred to Yemen, as the case was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled the military charges that led to his arrest were not war crimes by international law at the time he committed them, making the detention and subsequent prosecution unconstitutional.
What do we know about this filmmaker? She comes from a wealthy background, where her parents donated $20 million dollars in 2007 to found The Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while being raised at an experimental private school in Massachusetts, the Sudbury Valley School. While she planned to be a chef, spending several apprentice years at a French restaurant in Boston, she changed her mind, moving across the coutry to the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied with experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr, eventually moving back to New York where in 1996 she graduated from The New School in Greenwich Village. Bearing the distinction of being a 2012 MacArthur Fellow which partially funded her work on this film, she is part of a new social movement rising out of the ashes of a dying newspaper business that challenges conventional language of media, which limits the idea of personal freedom of expression, as the communications industry itself has become a protected corporate interest that sets its own standards of acceptability that are rarely challenged. For instance, in the use of drone “signature strikes,” conventional media through international wire services have settled upon the supposedly acceptable terminology of “targeted killings” as opposed to calling the actions “assassinations,” a term most all newspapers would simply not print. However, Journalist Glenn Greenwald in Salon articles as early as America's drone sickness - Salon.com, April 19, 2012, suggest drone attacks kill far more civilians than reported, as the government maintains a policy of secrecy, suggesting assassination is a more apt term for what’s going on, further elaborated upon by Erik Wemple from The Washington Post, February 10, 2014, "Glenn Greenwald and the U.S. 'assassination' program, where Greenwald’s explanation is “the accurate term rather than the euphemistic term that the government wants us to use…I’d say anyone who is murdered deliberately away from a battlefield for political purposes is being assassinated.” The broadened position used by governments is that the battlefield in the War on Terrorism exists everywhere, where this expanded definition intrudes upon the lives of literally everyone. Enter Edward Snowden.
In January 2013, filmmaker Laura Poitras was still in the process of developing a final chapter in her film trilogy about abuses of national security in post-9/11 America when she started receiving encrypted emails from someone identifying himself as “citizen four,” who was ready to blow the whistle on the massive covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Apparantly motivated by the stream of lies and denials from upper echelon military brass and intelligence officials to various congressional inquiries asking about the extent of the government’s reach into the private lives of ordinary citizens, extending the reach of the USA PATRIOT Act, implemented immediately after the devastating effects of 9/11, designed to prevent terrorists from striking again on American soil. However, Poitras began receiving highly detailed yet secretive information that would implicate the White House, the NSA, tech companies, and a variety of other American institutions in a broadranging initiative of illegal wiretaps, computer access and listening devices to spy on every American citizen as well as government officials abroad without any of them ever knowing of it. While the Act itself requires judicial overview, where wiretaps and various other surveillance methods require court approval, this rapidly developing surveillance phenomena was already having a massive impact on the rights of privacy while taking place without any apparent oversight or accountability. This not only captured the attention of the filmmaker, but the whistleblower, who turned out to be Edward Snowden, a 29-year old NSA contractor who demanded utter secrecy in all subsequent contacts, eventually meeting six months later in a hotel room in Hong Kong, along with two journalists working for The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. Meeting him for the first time with the cameras rolling is a tense moment where no one really knows what to expect, but it becomes one of the historical and perhaps defining events in our lifetimes. It turns out Greenwald was initially sent encrypted emails some months earlier, but he dismissed them as junk mail, so the contact established with the filmmaker allows us a window into this moment, along with audiences for generations to come.
What’s immediately fascinating, once Snowden starts engaging the journalists, is the extraordinary level of caution, meticulous detail, and intelligence, where the mindful nature of protecting themselves from anyone who might be listening in on them is just stunning, elevating the level of paranoia not seen since those tense atmospheric thrillers of the 70’s, like THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974), THE CONVERSATION (1974), CHINATOWN (1974), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), yet this is real life unfolding before our eyes. All of this lends a certain theatricality to the geeky and overly technical nature of much of the material Snowden intends to make public. Poitras seems to realize this and maintains her focus more on the man than the nature of his revelations, allowing the journalists to do their jobs (where The Guardian was subsequently awarded a Pulitzer Prize in public service), which by the time viewers see the film will have already been thoroughly debated and analyzed in public and speak for themselves. What’s curious about what the audience sees is that none of this is actually known yet, but is about to unfold in the upcoming days and weeks ahead. Condensing material gathered over the course of eight days, we learn that Snowden is highly articulate and displays a natural brilliance, where his ease with his own conscience suggests unassailable convictions, which will certainly be challenged in the upcoming days and years ahead. While Snowden never intended to become the focus, preferring instead to remain on the sidelines, it’s interesting to see his reaction once the secret revelations are exposed, where suddenly a construction crew has mysteriously moved around his home, his family and friends are questioned, and the government is awkwardly caught offguard, searching for answers, eventually introducing a smear campaign against him, where he is subsequently charged as a “traitor” for violating the Espionage Act that was passed after America’s entrance into World War I. The film doesn’t enter the discussion of whether Snowden is a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a patriot, or a traitor, all labels that have been attributed to him, but it’s certainly ironic that those artists and journalists that effectively conspired with him to help expose these public revelations have all been lauded and acclaimed. Greenwald has separated from The Guardian, and joined forces with Poitras, fellow journalist Jeremy Scahill and others to form an independent news website called The Intercept, where they’ve delved further into the ramifications of Snowden’s documentation, which includes the fact that 1.2 million people are currently on Homeland Security’s watch list, reminiscent of similar tactics practiced by J. Edgar Hoover during his tenure with the FBI. The government’s hardball tactics used against Snowden have also been applied to journalists and their families as well as the filmmaker in the room, where they or their loved ones are routinely stopped and interrogated at length at airports, practices so intrusive that Poitras now lives in Berlin while Greenwald had already chosen to reside in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.