Today's post was a test of this blogger's sitzflesch in that George Packer's reportage on "Citizenfour" Laura Poitras' forthcoming Edward Snowden documentary seems longer than the film itself (114 minutes). That disclaimer aside, get comfortable and go into the dark side of the Security State. IN the meantime, Snowden has become a man without a country and lives in exile in Russia. If this is (fair & balanced) suspicion of government surveillance, so be it.
[The New Yorker]
The Holder Of Secrets
By George Packer
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
From the garden terrace of a sixth-floor walkup on a quiet Berlin street, there was a clear view to the TV Tower, in Alexanderplatz. The tower, completed by the East Germans in 1969, once served as the biggest symbol of a regime that maintained its power by spying relentlessly on its citizens. It’s now a piece of harmless Cold War kitsch—a soaring concrete column with a shiny top resembling a disco ball. On the front door of the apartment somebody had affixed a sticker that mimicked the visual style of the “Hope” campaign poster for Barack Obama, with the words “Ein Bett für Snowden” (“A Bed for Snowden”) next to the face of the world’s most famous fugitive. The sticker was part of a movement advocating that Edward Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia, be given political asylum in Germany. The apartment’s interior had been turned into a film studio, where Laura Poitras—the maker of documentaries who, last year, helped Snowden leak documents exposing the fact that the National Security Agency collects huge amounts of data on United States citizens—was in the final days of a three-year project about surveillance in America.
Poitras was the first person to learn of Snowden’s trove of files, in early 2013, and for months it remained their secret. From the beginning, the language of their correspondence was heightened. Snowden wrote to Poitras, “You asked why I chose you. I didn’t. You chose yourself.” He was referring to films of hers that were critical of the war on terror—in particular, a short piece on an N.S.A. whistle-blower named William Binney. That June, they met in a hotel in Hong Kong, and Poitras made and released a twelve-minute video in which Snowden introduced himself to the world. Since then, he has given numerous interviews, and the journalist Glenn Greenwald, Poitras’s reporting partner on the story, has published a book. But Poitras, guarding her privacy, has said very little while she has finished work on her film. Anticipation kept building, and it was global news when the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced that it would present the première, on October 10th. (A wider release follows, on October 24th.)
Poitras is fifty years old, with brown eyes that habitually have a look of alarm, as if she were staring at something from which she wanted to escape. Her features—strong nose; sensitive mouth; a long wave of dark hair, parted in the middle—bring to mind a Victorian artist, a woman of character whose intensity is kept under wraps. Inside the studio, the atmosphere was discreet and tense: thoughts were conveyed in shorthand, words were swallowed, sentences trailed off. This is Poitras’s style, and her small team of collaborators followed her lead. The group was international, and included an American co-producer, Katy Scoggin; a German producer, Dirk Wilutzky; and his French-American wife, Mathilde Bonnefoy, who served as Poitras’s editor. They worked on computers with high levels of encryption, memorized extremely long passwords that were frequently changed, left their phones outside, and shut the windows in rooms where sensitive conversations took place. They were compressing ten weeks of work into less than a month, in time for the première.
Scoggin came to Berlin from New York last year to work with Poitras for a month. A year and a half later, she was still here. “She’s been kind to me, but there’s something deeper in her,” Scoggin said. “It’s this urgency to tell stories, to be a voice that is crying out, saying, ‘Wait, look at what is happening.’ It’s not yelling, it’s not strident, but it’s done with great conviction and force.”
Poitras and Bonnefoy (whose credits include the crime thriller “Run Lola Run”) sat before a monitor, looking at the film’s final scene. No one had seen it besides them and Wilutzky. Bonnefoy, using a keyboard, kept replaying the scene, a few seconds at a time.
Poitras asked me to look away from the monitor. Some footage apparently risked exposing an anonymous source. “There’s one identifying thing,” she told Bonnefoy. “Scroll down, scroll down. I think you just take this out altogether. The whole thing. It’s too identifying. I think, given the risk, we should be careful. What I have the clearance to do is focus on the drone strikes and the watch list.” The watch list is the U.S. government’s long roster of known terrorists and other people deemed to pose a serious national-security risk.
Poitras and Bonnefoy spent a few minutes redacting frames while I looked at the wall behind them. There were dozens of stills from the film, and white cards on which Bonnefoy had written notes. One card said:
too many substories in act 3
show more of ES thinking (breathing pauses)
more atmospheric moments in HK/more outside shots
show demonstrations after Merkel?
“Now you can look,” Bonnefoy told me.
In the footage, Snowden and Greenwald, both of them wearing blue button-downs, are sitting in a Moscow hotel room. Greenwald scribbles notes on sheets of stationery—in order to elude possible audio surveillance—and passes them to Snowden. Greenwald has news for Snowden: an intelligence source has disclosed detailed information about U.S. drone strikes. Greenwald conveys this in a combination of broken sentences, jotted phrases, and obscure jargon.
Bonnefoy said, “The problem is, there’s something in the way Glenn explains this—which is, of course, very cryptic—that makes it completely hard to understand.”
Poitras explained to Bonnefoy aspects of the program that Greenwald was describing. How could this be conveyed onscreen? Bonnefoy wanted more of the dialogue between Snowden and Greenwald to be included. But Poitras, determined to protect the new source, was cutting the scene down to just a few phrases and gestures.
She and Bonnefoy turned to the documentary’s opening shot: a tunnel in Hong Kong, filmed with a narrow aperture, so that the camera appeared to be speeding through black space. A pattern of lights flashed overhead like Morse-code dashes. It created an ominous mood, evoking the beginning of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” The sound of wind rose and, in voice-over, an unidentified female—Poitras—read one of the first e-mails she received from Snowden: “At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community.”
Bonnefoy stopped the film. They were still polishing the soundtrack. Poitras said, “I’d love to try something electronic in it, and sort of move away from the wind.”
The voice-over continued, accompanied by a low vibrating sound, like an electronic sine wave, with eerie piano notes: “It will be your decision as to whether or how to declare my involvement. My personal desire is that you paint the target directly on my back. No one, not even my most trusted confidante, is aware of my intentions, and it would not be fair for them to fall under suspicion for my actions. You may be the only one who can prevent that, and that is by immediately nailing me to the cross rather than trying to protect me as a source.” The wind sound rose and faded. “On timing, regarding meeting up in Hong Kong, the first rendezvous attempt will be at 10 A.M. local time on Monday. We will meet in the hallway outside of the restaurant in the Mira Hotel. I will be working on a Rubik’s Cube so you can identify me.”
Bonnefoy stopped the film again. “It’s actually quite nice,” she said of the wind sound. “Hearing it alone, it felt bombastic, but, like this, in the context, it’s actually more like he’s in a room, a space.”
Afterward, Poitras went home to her apartment, a few blocks away. She moved to Berlin in the fall of 2012, after years of being repeatedly stopped at airports by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. (She thought it might have something to do with a film about Iraq that she released in 2006.) Prenzlauer Berg, where Poitras has her studio, is Berlin’s Williamsburg; the coffee shops are upscale and have play areas inside. The neighborhood has become the center of the German capital’s small community of surveillance expats. Berlin is an ideal place for them; it’s hip and relatively cheap, with a respect for privacy that’s enshrined in law and custom. Germans attribute this to the legacy of the Gestapo and the Stasi, to which many of the American expats casually compare the National Security Agency. There’s a shiver of totalitarian ghosts, and totalitarian fantasies, amid the cobblestones and the Kinderspielcafes.
An English-language monthly, Exberliner, devoted its September issue to celebrating the scene. “Berlin’s Digital Rebellion,” the cover announced. “Whistle-blowers, Cypherpunks and Hackers: The post-Snowden resistance is right on our doorstep. Are you ready to join the fight?” The magazine featured an interview with Jacob Appelbaum, a “hacktivist” from WikiLeaks who is a friend of Poitras’s. Unlike many of the surveillance expats, Poitras speaks longingly of returning to America. In the past year, she and Greenwald have had disagreements with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks believed that Poitras was too timid, and too preoccupied with her film, to release more of them.
Poitras doesn’t like to talk about her friction with WikiLeaks, or with the U.S. government. She doesn’t like to talk about herself at all. This reticence has complicated the making of the new movie, because, inescapably, she is one of its main characters.
The film is called “Citizenfour”—the handle Snowden used in the first, anonymous e-mails he sent to Poitras. An earlier working title, “Year Zero,” was discarded; in addition to being the term that the Khmer Rouge adopted upon their takeover of Cambodia, in 1975, “Year Zero” suggested a grandiosity that is not characteristic of Poitras’s work.
Ten years ago, Poitras contacted me after reading an article of mine, in this magazine, about the occupation of Iraq. The war, and the aggressive turn of U.S. policy after September 11th, had filled her with despair, and she wanted to create a record of the human consequences. She comes from a wealthy, conservative family outside Boston. Her educational background is in art and social theory—she has a degree from the New School, in New York, where she was influenced by the cinéma-vérité documentaries of the Maysles brothers, D. A. Pennebaker, and Frederick Wiseman. She had already made one full-length documentary, “Flag Wars,” about the conflict between gay and black residents of a gentrifying neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. It won several awards and taught her that there was nothing she’d “rather do than be behind the camera with people, in real time, confronting life decisions.” We met for coffee and talked about working in Iraq, including the risks for an American woman alone with a camera amid the spiralling violence.
In the summer of 2004, Poitras went to Baghdad, and in the Green Zone she embedded with a civil-affairs unit responsible for helping Iraqi officials organize the country’s first democratic elections. She was on her own, without even a local interpreter, and she came to depend on the generosity of American soldiers, who gave her the key to a trailer where she could sleep and identity badges that allowed her to move freely. “I don’t go into films because I want to make an ideological or political point,” she told me in Berlin. “I have some themes I’m interested in, and I just begin—I go on a journey, I meet people, and through those people the questions are answered, but the questions kind of get handed over to the circumstances I’m documenting.” She added, “I was certainly against the war, but, actually being there, I had to understand it differently. It changed everything. It’s easy to say from New York that elections under occupation are a sham. But, when you actually see people who are willing to die to vote, it’s real.”
In Iraq, Poitras was frustrated to discover that the civil-affairs unit was largely confined to the Green Zone. Shortly after arriving, she went to film an inspection of Abu Ghraib prison, and there she met an Iraqi doctor named Riyadh al-Adhadh, who was taking down health complaints from prisoners. The doctor, a Sunni, was opposed to the American presence but determined to run for local office. Dr. Riyadh suggested that she come to his clinic and film his meetings with patients. When the hour grew too late for Poitras to return safely to her trailer, he invited her to stay at his house, where he lived with his wife and six children. Poitras had found her subject, and she lived with the family, on and off, for the next eight months, following them through daily life as the country staggered toward elections amid firefights, suicide bombings, and assassinations. Her technique is to hold the camera at waist height and look down into the viewfinder, rather than hide her face behind a lens. “The camera doesn’t have to be a barrier,” she said. “It’s a witness.” Although she understood little Arabic, and had to wait weeks or months to have footage translated, she had an instinct for moments of intimate drama, and her Iraqi subjects revealed their pain, their black humor, their fragile hope. The film, “My Country, My Country,” is a masterpiece of empathy. In Poitras’s telling, the Iraq War is a tragedy for all sides, and Dr. Riyadh emerges as a quiet hero struggling to preserve free will and decency against overwhelming forces. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, remains an essential document of the war. Seen today, it seems almost hopeful, showing an Iraq whose fate has not yet been sealed.
Poitras wanted to make her next film about the detention camps at Guantánamo, as the second part of a trilogy about American power after 9/11. Her idea was to find a prisoner who was innocent and follow him home after his release. She went to Yemen, the home country of many of the inmates. On her second day in the capital, Sanaa, she met a man named Nasser al-Bahri, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Jandal. He was the brother-in-law of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver and among Guantánamo’s best-known prisoners. Abu Jandal, a taxi-driver, had once been bin Laden’s bodyguard in Afghanistan. “My brain went in somersaults—how the fuck is this possible?” Poitras said. “How can somebody who was so high up in Al Qaeda be driving a taxicab in Sanaa, and we have documented cases of people who have no business being held at Guantánamo?” At first, she imagined making two films—one about an innocent prisoner, which “would be politically correct, an example of why Guantánamo should be closed,” and another telling a “much more messy story about an unreliable character.” Once again, circumstances on the ground led her away from her original conceit. She rented an apartment in Sanaa and asked Abu Jandal to mount a camera on the dashboard of his taxi, so that he could film himself chatting with passengers or thinking out loud as he drove.
Abu Jandal was a more elusive subject than the Iraqi doctor. He had passed through a government rehabilitation program and was counselling young Yemenis who might sympathize with Al Qaeda, but he hadn’t entirely rejected the ideology of jihad. Gregarious, intelligent, and shifty, he seemed to be playing every side. Once, when a passenger asked him about the camera in his taxi, he lied effortlessly, claiming that the battery had died—a moment that Poitras made sure to include in her film. “He was never who you thought he was,” she said. The story of Abu Jandal was “politically incorrect, and kind of dynamite.” She feared that her funders, who anticipated a film about innocent detainees, would run in the other direction. Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told her, “I’m trying to get people out of Guantánamo, and your film is not helpful.” She kept going, though, and finished the project, “The Oath,” in 2010.
“The Oath” is ambiguous and unsettling. Its ghost plot is the trial of Salim Hamdan, the Al Qaeda driver, in the form of a military tribunal, but we never see it or him. Instead, the film centers on Abu Jandal, the charismatic ex-jihadi, portraying him in shades of gray. There’s no clear moral ground on which to stand—until, near the end, we learn that, immediately after September 11th, Abu Jandal was interrogated in Yemen by Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American F.B.I. agent. Soufan explains that, using lawful procedures, he gained from Abu Jandal the kind of vital intelligence that torture usually fails to get. If the film has a theme, Poitras said, it’s that, by “maintaining those kinds of principles, you can actually get results, if the end goal is deëscalation of violence or deradicalization.”
In 2006, federal agents began stopping Poitras at airports as she was leaving or entering the U.S., asking questions about her travels and her work; on one occasion, they confiscated her electronic equipment. She began taking notes during the interrogations, and argued when she was told to stop. Altogether, she says, she was detained at least forty times between 2006 and 2012, without ever being told why. It might have had to do with a 2004 incident in Baghdad: American soldiers saw her filming from Dr. Riyadh’s roof during a firefight in the neighborhood, and, according to an article by Peter Maass in the Times Magazine, an officer wrote a report suggesting that she might have had foreknowledge of the attack. (She denied having any, and no evidence suggests otherwise.) A journalist named John Bruning eventually published a book about the soldiers’ battalion, The Devil’s Sandbox (2006), in which he repeated the same charge against Poitras. Then again, she told me, the trigger may have been a wire transfer that she sent in 2006 to Dr. Riyadh when his family fled Iraq’s civil war. Bruning’s book claims that the battalion suspected the doctor of being an insurgent. (There is no evidence for this, either.)
Poitras didn’t like to speculate about the reasons. Her feeling was: “I’ve done nothing to deserve being put on a watch list.” She also didn’t want to exaggerate the danger. “Let’s just be honest,” she told me. “If I had darker skin, or was carrying a different passport, the cast of guilt, the shadow, would go a lot longer.” Nevertheless, she felt that she had been sucked into an unaccountable system: once her name was flagged, her life changed, and she could never get an explanation for it. The experience led her to adopt extreme measures with computer and phone security and, eventually, to move to Berlin. She no longer believed that she could keep privileged material safe when travelling to and from the U.S. The airport interrogations ended only after Greenwald wrote a column for Salon about them, in 2012.
By then, Poitras had begun making the final film of her trilogy. She was interested in domestic surveillance and the people who stood up to it. She filmed Assange in England, where he was seeking asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sexual-assault accusations; Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro, where he was writing about whistle-blowers; and Binney, a retired Cold War crypto-mathematician with the N.S.A., who had become a whistle-blower about domestic spying and had been interrogated several times by the F.B.I. She was captivated by these people, and some of them became her friends. (Not the prickly Assange.) She accumulated huge amounts of footage. On one wall of her editing room there were long lists of characters and locations from all over the world. She was exploring the idea of a movie with no plot, something nonlinear and indeterminate—a “Zeitgeist” film. “Plot is so relentless,” she said. “It’s totally unforgiving, and it also can be simplifying. It can provide resolution where there should be none. It can provide false catharsis.”
One of the film’s subjects was Poitras’s friend Jacob Appelbaum, the young American expert on online anonymity. Appelbaum trained activists in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, including the U.S., to thwart state surveillance, and, like Poitras, he had moved to Berlin. He said that he was living in “political exile,” and saw himself as a dissident who had been persecuted for his views. One afternoon in Berlin, we met at a private club that he, Poitras, and others in their circle belong to. (Appelbaum joked that it had become the group’s hangout because of Poitras’s “bourgeois tendencies.”) He was meticulous about his appearance—he wore hipster glasses, and the top of his right ear was pierced by a metal bar—though his eyes had a wild intensity. He insisted on being interviewed in the club’s sauna, where another naked man was lying down. This seemed to be Appelbaum’s way of insuring that I wasn’t hiding any surveillance devices. We had contrary ideas about privacy: I keep my phone with me during interviews, but I don’t like discussing personal matters in front of strangers with my clothes off. After fifteen minutes, the pages of my notebook were soaked in sweat, and I asked to move the venue. We continued talking in an adjacent room, where numerous men wrapped in towels lounged on benches as Appelbaum told me the story of his life as an activist for anonymity.
He comes from “a small, undisclosed location in Northern California.” His mother suffered from mental illness; his father was a theatre person and a junkie who died of drug-related causes. He grew up in group homes, shelters, and needle dens. He dropped out of high school and attended junior-college classes, where he wore suits in order not to be judged poor by classmates. He taught himself to use computers and, in the late nineties, fell in with various Bay Area free-software collectives. He discovered Emma Goldman, the anarchist, and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers.
The collectives, which included many anarchists and hackers, gave him a sense of belonging and purpose. He joined the Tor Project, an effort to promote a type of software, originally developed for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, that allows a high degree of online anonymity. Appelbaum began training people around the world to use the software: sex workers in Vietnam, Tibetan exiles in India, Lebanese bloggers. At the Chaos Computer Club, in Berlin, he met Assange and eventually became the only American publicly identified with WikiLeaks. He helped the collective maintain cybersecurity in Iceland when, in 2010, it began releasing stolen U.S. government documents.
“That is when everything went completely fucking insane for me,” Appelbaum said.
The other part of the story—which Appelbaum also told me in the presence of club members wrapped in towels—had to do with constant government surveillance. He described police harassment of himself, his mother, and his friends, grand-jury investigations, airport interrogations, two-way mirrors, F.B.I. tails, warrantless wiretaps and break-ins, automated license-plate readers on unmarked cars, black-bag jobs. He said that the drama began more than a decade ago but became intolerable after the WikiLeaks disclosures. He said that, late one night in 2011, his girlfriend at the time woke up in her bedroom, in Seattle, to find two men, one with night-vision goggles, looking at her through the window. In his account of repeated run-ins with authorities—Border Protection agents, Seattle police, N.S.A. leaders—Appelbaum portrayed himself as a rude provocateur, never being cowed and always getting the last word.
After he moved to Berlin, in 2013, Appelbaum said, someone broke into his apartment. He avoided cell phones. He varied his route walking home. He asked me not to name his club. Poitras was his close friend, but Appelbaum, who still identifies with Assange, suggested that she did not apprehend the structure of repression deeply enough. “She’s sloppier than I am,” he said. “You know where she lives, you know where she works, and you’ve got a phone, and someone else has a phone.”
I asked if all this caution was isolating.
“Is it all-consuming when you start out?” Appelbaum replied. “So is grammar.”
Later, he abandoned vigilance enough to take me to his apartment, in Prenzlauer Berg, where he picked up a Shar-Pei named Rosa—in honor of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who was murdered in Berlin in 1919. We set off for Poitras’s studio. He and some friends had bought the dog for Poitras, who had declined the gift, but Appelbaum continued to call it hers. When he telephoned for a cab, he gave an address a few doors down and across the street from his apartment. At the studio, Poitras was preparing to screen the latest cut of “Citizenfour” for a small group. She told Appelbaum that he could not attend the screening. After talking to legal experts, he had decided not to travel to the U.S. for the première, and he was angry about having to miss it.
It wasn’t hard to believe that the U.S. government might be prying into the life of a WikiLeaks activist, given that the group is under criminal investigation. It was impossible to know whether a man with night-vision goggles had spied on Appelbaum’s sleeping girlfriend. Poitras had her own experience of harassment and her own reasons to be concerned about security. In her Berlin circle, a fear of being under surveillance was normal; the burden of explanation lay on the less careful. A habit of secrecy that started with a desire to maintain “operational security”—protecting a confidential source—could build until every action became furtive, inverting the intelligence agencies’ mantra to “collect everything.” Wilutzky found that the impulse to self-censor overtook even a living-room conversation with his wife, Bonnefoy: he stopped himself from saying something about “Citizenfour,” for fear of being monitored. He decided that he had gone too far. “I don’t want to be influenced that way,” he told me. “I go on the Internet and use Safari and Google, and I don’t give a damn. I want to keep my liberties.”
Katy Scoggin, Poitras’s co-producer, sent me an unencrypted note about encryption and confessed, “I often get an icky feeling when writing e-mails in plaintext these days. So does that mean I’m paranoid—another of your questions I’ve thought more about? I don’t know, maybe. A friend’s admonishment that one of my enemies could hack into my insulin pump and overdose me with Humalog is farther out on the paranoia spectrum than I like to go. But, considering who I work for, I can only assume that some of my e-mail correspondence is monitored.”
How much was the U.S. government hounding critics for political, rather than legal, reasons? To what extent was the government’s capacity for surveillance matched by its will to abuse it? In the cloistered world of expatriate Berlin, a sense of proportion was hard to maintain. Secrecy became self-perpetuating and, for some of Poitras’s friends, self-important. Cut off from daily life in America, encrypted to the hilt, and surrounded by Europeans who were willing to believe the worst, Poitras was, in many ways, making a film about her own strange social world—an atmosphere that seemed likely to constrict the free flow of ideas. She saw no danger of this happening; to her, all the risk was external, and she was just protecting herself and her material. But at some point the thread of her “Zeitgeist” film began to run out.
“I realized that I lost something kind of big, which is emotion,” she said. “It’s harder to create emotional through lines without a plot. It just became apparent when I started to assemble scenes that I was less moved.”
Then, in January of 2013, a plot came to Poitras, in the form of e-mails from an anonymous government official.
Snowden settled on Poitras because he respected her films, but also because he admired her opposition to surveillance and her mastery of computer security. She was staggered by the scope and the dangerousness of what he claimed to know, and at first, fearing entrapment, she demanded that he prove his bona fides. They began an encrypted correspondence, which went on for several months, and she became intensely bound to the anonymous stranger. “It clearly pulled me in in every way—emotionally, psychologically,” she said. “It was something I was thinking about all the time.” She stopped turning her phone on in her apartment, to keep her location secret, and she read Snowden’s e-mails in other places, without Wi-Fi, on a spare computer bought with cash.
In language that had the stilted feel of a manifesto written in isolation, Snowden told Poitras of his intention to sacrifice himself for the public good. She would be the means to this noble end. Learning that he planned to make his identity public, Poitras told Snowden that she wanted to meet him and film him. “He said, ‘It’s too dangerous, and it’s not about me—I don’t want to be the story,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Like it or not, you’re going to be the story, so you might as well get your voice in.’ After that point, I became a filmmaker.”
Snowden urged her to find a collaborator for publishing the documents, which were complex and voluminous, and she agreed to do so. She didn’t care about sharing, or even losing, a scoop—the documents were a print story. She was interested in Snowden. She wanted to know what drove him to risk everything. “Unlike my previous films, this was somebody I had built a dialogue with, and wanted to meet,” she told me. “Because I cared.” In May, 2013, Poitras flew to New York and awaited word from Snowden, who told her to meet him in Hong Kong. The trip, she felt, would in some ways be more dangerous than going to Iraq. “If you think about it, I’m already on the watch list, I’ve already been detained at least forty times,” she said. “If I go alone, without an institution behind me, and they decide to come in and arrest us both, how’s it going to look?”
Poitras wanted a third person in the room when she filmed Snowden. She never shot herself conducting interviews—it broke one of the tenets of cinéma vérité. When she had trouble enlisting someone, she began to panic.
Snowden asked her to involve Greenwald, who at the time was a columnist for the Guardian. In fact, he had approached Greenwald before Poitras, but Greenwald hadn’t made the effort to install encryption software for e-mails, and Snowden had moved on. Greenwald was contacted again, and in late May he flew from Rio to New York. Now Poitras had a partner. “Glenn, to his credit, as soon as he was in the loop, he was on the plane,” Poitras said.
In a Hong Kong hotel room, she filmed Snowden for some twenty hours, in the course of eight days. Greenwald began publishing stories in the Guardian that stunned readers—perhaps the most explosive of which revealed an order from a secret U.S. intelligence court compelling Verizon to turn over its customers’ phone records to the N.S.A. The articles cited an anonymous source. Then Poitras filmed the short video of Snowden, in which he answered questions posed by Greenwald. It was posted on the Guardian’s Web site on June 9th. Poitras had no plan except to stay as close as possible to her protagonist, feeling that at any moment they could be stopped. Snowden didn’t have a plan, either—until, with the help of local lawyers, he slipped out of the hotel and disappeared into Hong Kong.
Poitras wanted to follow Snowden and keep filming, but by then the media and many intelligence agencies were after him, and it was too risky. She sent him a message asking if he could get a camera and, like Abu Jandal in his taxi, film himself. No chance, Snowden said. Greenwald and one of his Guardian colleagues had already left Hong Kong. Alone again, and half expecting to be arrested, Poitras decided to get out. Days later, Snowden, with the help of WikiLeaks, surfaced in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
Poitras now had a story, but back in Berlin she and Bonnefoy were still wrestling with two years of previous filming. Wilutzky said, “It was clear that they could make a film only about Snowden, but they wanted to try out if there was another film”—one in which Snowden was “just a little piece in the middle.” Poitras couldn’t bring herself to watch all the raw footage—she was protecting herself from overwhelming emotion. She said of her encounter with Snowden, “There were things that happened that I’ve never experienced before. I saw things in the footage that I had no memory of.” Bonnefoy watched all twenty hours, and afterward had to lie down. “It was clear that here was someone who had decided to sacrifice his life, like a suicide,” she said. Bonnefoy realized that the film had to be Snowden’s. The painful process of what she called “shedding characters” took months. Appelbaum and Assange, central figures in the early stages of filming, receded, while Binney, the older N.S.A. whistle-blower, gained new importance as a Snowden predecessor who had tried to work within official channels and been crushed.
For Poitras and her team, Snowden’s arrival in the middle of the project was miraculous: he offered proof of what their other characters had been claiming about the extent of government surveillance but without hard evidence. (“You would even think it was conspiracy theorists,” Wilutzky said.) Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who eventually represented Snowden, advised Poitras throughout. He told me, “A tremendous sense of calm settled over her when the Snowden documents came out. There was a lifting of the ‘Gaslight’ feeling that she alone knew what was going on, and she could no longer be accused of being paranoid or crazy.”
But Snowden also created a problem for Poitras. Having received e-mails and documents from him, she had entered the story, and she knew that the audience needed to understand her participation. She had, reluctantly, become a public figure, if far less famous than Snowden and Greenwald. This year, after the N.S.A. disclosures, she and her collaborators won a Pulitzer Prize and other journalism awards. Bonnefoy thought that Poitras should appear on camera doing further reporting on the N.S.A., but Poitras rejected the idea as alien to her style. She liked Michael Moore, but she could never be a character in her own work. She knew that Snowden’s e-mails would become part of the film, and for a long time she intended to ask him to record himself reading them, but in the end she didn’t. “It would be asking him to play himself,” she said. “I’m interested in how people understand things in present tense, and not how they tell the story back to themselves in the past. That’s why I’m not that interested in interviews. People create these narratives of themselves, and it becomes a kind of locked path. All the uncertainty and danger and risk and decision-making are ripped from the telling.”
Poitras finally decided to record herself reading the messages. One weekend, she checked into a Berlin hotel with a batch of printouts. (Her apartment didn’t feel private enough—“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are microphones pointed at it, at the very least.”) She left the lens cap on her camera while filming herself reading. Though the words were Snowden’s, her voice, at once rich and precise, conveyed the emotion that she had felt upon receiving the correspondence of someone preparing to jump off a cliff. This disembodied voice became the way that she brought herself into the film, as its narrator.
On my last night in Berlin, Poitras asked me to watch “Citizenfour” on an eight-by-twelve-foot screen in the living room of Wilutzky and Bonnefoy’s apartment, which is adjacent to the studio. A German director, Christoph Hochhäusler, had also been invited to attend. “This is the first time we are revealing it to people outside our inmost circle of three,” Bonnefoy said.
Wilutzky collected cell phones and stashed them in another room. “There are still some sensitivities,” Poitras said. “Really, it’s serious.” Then she sat down to view the culmination of three years’ work, betraying no expression.
“Citizenfour” is a political thriller in three acts. In the first, a stranger approaches Poitras electronically, with a promise of dramatic disclosures. We meet critics of surveillance—Greenwald, Binney, Appelbaum—who warn of dark implications for American democracy. The second act begins with a shot of the black tunnel and the flashing overhead lights—a repetition of the opening credits, but this time the camera emerges into daytime Hong Kong. The rest of the act proceeds chronologically through the eight days in the hotel room, taking up a full hour of the hundred-and-thirteen-minute film.
We watch Snowden explain his background, his motivations, the nature and extent of N.S.A. eavesdropping, and his fears for the future. His control under immense pressure is unnerving. “I am more willing to risk imprisonment,” he says, “or any other negative outcome personally, than I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself.” The interviewer is Greenwald, and, soon enough, he and Snowden become defiant collaborators against power. Snowden, explaining why he plans to reveal his identity, speaks as if he were confronting a government heavy: “I’m not afraid of you. You’re not going to bully me into silence like you’ve done to everybody else.” Greenwald exclaims, “You’re coming out because you want to fucking come out!” (It’s a moment of inadvertent and unregistered humor, since Greenwald is gay.)
Snowden watches the global fallout from Greenwald’s stories on the TV in his hotel room. Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, whom he left behind in Hawaii without a word of explanation, writes him that police have come to question her. He is shaken, imagining her realization that “the person that you love, that you spent the decade with, may not be coming back.” He types something on his laptop—presumably, a reply to Mills—but Poitras, respecting his privacy, doesn’t move the camera to show its content. As the days go by, Snowden’s anxiety increases, and the room becomes claustrophobic. A fire alarm keeps going off—routine testing, he’s told. The bedside phone rings—“I’m afraid you have the wrong room,” he says, and hangs up. “Wall Street Journal,” he explains. His chin is stubbled and his hair won’t lie flat. He seems to be growing visibly paler, and the many stretches of silence last longer; Poitras’s camera stays close to him, at once exposing and protective. In such a small space, from which there’s no exit, the presence of a camera has a distorting effect, and it turns Snowden into a character in a play. Unlike Dr. Riyadh and his family, who went about their lives as Poitras trailed them, Snowden can never forget that he’s being filmed. There are few moments of self-betrayal.
“How do you feel?” we hear Poitras ask.
“What happens happens,” he says. “If I get arrested, I get arrested.”
In shots of him sitting on his unmade bed—white sheets and covers, white headboard, white bathrobe, white skin—Snowden seems like a figure in some obscure ritual, being readied for sacrifice. At one point, we hear his heart beating against a microphone. Still, he keeps speaking in the hyper-rational, oddly formal sentences of a computer techie. And then he’s gone.
The third act, which tracks various consequences of Snowden’s revelations, feels like a jumble. The plot is taken over by news events that are by now familiar, and Poitras almost falls out of the story, which is given over to men with more aggressive views and less sensibility. Greenwald tells a Brazilian senate hearing, attended by spectators holding Snowden masks, that U.S. foreign surveillance is primarily about economic competition, not about the prevention of terrorism. Assange, who has fled to the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, describes in a phone call how WikiLeaks arranged Snowden’s escape to Moscow. Appelbaum warns the European Parliament, in Brussels, that U.S. intelligence will attack “anyone they can if they perceive an advantage.” After exposure of the N.S.A.’s surveillance of Chancellor Angela Merkel and ordinary Germans, Binney testifies before the Bundestag in a wheelchair; his legs have been amputated as a result of diabetes.
“Too many substories in act 3,” Bonnefoy had written to herself.
Snowden and Poitras resume electronic communication, though now the messages appear silently onscreen. She talks about “a new submission”: an anonymous source is talking to Jeremy Scahill, a colleague of Poitras’s and Greenwald’s at The Intercept, an online magazine about national security that was launched after the Snowden revelations. In the final sequence, we’re with Snowden in Moscow. It begins with a big surprise: Lindsay Mills has joined him there. A long exterior shot, resembling surveillance footage, shows them in a kitchen, at night, cooking. We learn nothing more. (Mills moved to Moscow in July. She told Poitras that she was willing to be interviewed, but Poitras didn’t want to address Snowden’s personal life.)
The film then moves to its conclusion: Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras are together again in a hotel room, this time in Moscow. Greenwald passes a note to Snowden, which says that all U.S. drone satellite communications are routed through an airbase in Germany. This story is no longer news—it was widely reported in April. Greenwald then sketches a vertical series of empty boxes, connected by arrows, pointing toward a box labelled “POTUS.” Snowden stands up in dismay. The implication is that President Obama gives the final sign-off on drone targets. This, too, has been widely reported. Finally, Snowden reads a note that says, “There are 1.2m people on various stages of their watch list.”
He stares at the camera. “That’s fucking ridiculous,” he says. He calls the source “incredibly bold.”
Greenwald says, “The boldness of it is shocking, but it’s obviously motivated by what you did.”
“That could raise the profile of this whole political situation with whistle-blowing to a whole new level,” Snowden says.
Wilutzky, the producer, had told me that this moment imbued the film with “Greek-tragedy elements” and “a big existential question about democracy.” With Snowden’s reaction to the new disclosures, he said, “you see a whistle-blower who blew the whistle, because he thought he was going to shock society, and then you see him deeply troubled. Otherwise, it would have been just a documentary—now you have a very serious film about personal fate.” But Poitras’s decision to edit out key material to protect the new source gives the ending a quality of irresolution and anticlimax. Several times, Snowden reacts to disclosures that we are not allowed to see; it’s as if the viewer were supposed to accept his judgment literally at face value. Poitras has closed a curtain around her main characters, leaving the audience out.
The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give “Citizenfour” the human truth she’s always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden’s decision. But, in this case, being “behind the camera with people, in real time, confronting life decisions,” is different from the approach seen in “My Country, My Country” and “The Oath.” Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it’s a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras’s terms, he has already created a narrative of himself—it’s a “locked path.” He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn’t look for ways to complicate him. His view of himself has become hers, too. And this fixed understanding imposes a kind of decorousness on the camerawork. Whereas Abu Jandal’s lie to his passenger was caught on film, we don’t get to read or hear about what Snowden is telling his girlfriend.
In Poitras’s Guardian video, Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn’t completely square with others’ accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.’s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet—he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work—and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, “While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.” Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald—including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald’s questioning.
Among the leaked documents are details of foreign-intelligence gathering that do not fall under the heading of unlawful threats to American democracy—what Snowden described as his only concern. Binney, generally a fervent Snowden supporter, told USA Today that Snowden’s references to “hacking into China” went too far: “So he is transitioning from whistle-blower to a traitor.” This is a distinction that Poitras might have induced Binney to pursue. Similarly, the tensions between Greenwald and Assange—their struggle over Snowden’s legacy and the rights to his archive, and its ideological implications—aren’t depicted onscreen. Because Poitras is so close to her subject, politically and psychologically, “Citizenfour” is not the tour de force it might have been.
These were my thoughts at the end of the screening, and when we gathered around the dinner table for pizza and discussion Hochhäusler, the German director, echoed some of them. He told Poitras that, among his friends, there was a question why the Snowden story had “never penetrated the feelings of people in a way that would lead to change, at least so far.” They concluded that the story was “too big,” by which he seemed to mean not personal enough. He asked Poitras if she saw the film primarily as an act of reporting.
“I think we think of it as a human drama,” Poitras said.
Bonnefoy interjected, “If I understand correctly, you missed something. You would have liked more humanity visible—”
“Gravity,” Hochhäusler said. The word suggested a sense of reality grounded in people’s lives. “The story is so crazy and big and unhealthy!” He said to Poitras, “I think it could help to have more of you. I know the enemy is so big.”
“The thing that I wonder about is the lack of gravity,” Poitras said, without any defensiveness. “I feel that there’s a lot, but I’m curious if you don’t experience it.”
“I need the consequences of all this very abstract information for people, for us, and you are our stand-in, you are our eyes,” Hochhäusler said. “Because most of the people think, Yes, but it won’t happen to me, and, anyway, I have nothing to hide. It’s always the same argument.”
For Poitras, what gave the story gravity was Snowden. For me, it was Poitras herself. From the first e-mail she received from Citizenfour, she disappeared into a world of secrets from which she is only now emerging. “I was sucked into the narrative in a way I have never experienced before,” she said, “and probably will never experience again.” Ω
[After graduating from Yale, George Packer served in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Packer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003. His most recent books include The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (2005), Betrayed (2009), and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (2013).]
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