Citizenfour – An exploration of privacy through an informal eye

Zygmunt Bauman once said, “Perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange” – the sentiment of this quote has stood the test of time as our modern world continues to develop new, innovative ways to keep tabs on the citizens. In Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, we citizens get a rare look behind the curtain into how we are being watched, followed and tracked through interviews with Edward Snowden, and expository voice over detailing what Snowden accomplished.

Snowden, as seen in Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour is a truly unique documentary, through its approach to the subject. The idea of pulling back the curtain on one of the most publicised whistleblowers of modern times is enough to draw attention to your documentary, but the fact that this documentary takes place in real time – as the information is leaking – hands the film a feeling of urgency and chaotic rush. It wasn’t made as a hindsight-infused retelling of what was done, it was a real-time look at the man giving the information, and his own life, away, and the anxieties, worries and confusion that came along with both, as well as offering explanation into what exactly was uncovered. One of its most standout qualities is that the film doesn’t feel inherently cinematic. Most of the frames are just static, tripod-mounted shots of people talking, sometimes not even fully in focus. There’s no flashy cinematography or sound design, but its simplistic approach adds to the nuance of the film’s informality – it doesn’t speak to its viewer like a lecturer, but rather as a friend detailing what’s happening and what will happen, much like how Snowden took a calmer, easygoing approach to talking with the journalists.

The film’s informal approach helps to ground the story, but also helps to communicate its themes in a rational, calm manner. It hearkens back to Bauman’s quote, and begs the question why do we choose to accept it? Edward Snowden, talking with Glenn Greenwald, said “The greatest fear I have regarding the outcome is that nothing will change”, he knew that he wasn’t personally starting the revolution, but rather he was offering a spark that would allow the fire to rise, hoping someone else, whether it be a superior within the NSA, or protesters forcing change out of sheer will, would take what he had done and achieve a change from it for the good. However, as we learn more and more each day, nothing is changing and we are still being watched just as much as we were when Citizenfour was released.

An extract from Citizenfour published on The Guardian

In a separate article, Bauman stated “Occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy and individual autonomy … find little if any repercussion in the public agenda, in media programming, and first and foremost in popular attention.” Unfortunately, as intriguing and informative as a film such as Citizenfour is, it ultimately falls into Bauman’s description of occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy, most people who have watched the film have continued on using social media and other websites. The irony of social media pages dedicated to Snowden appears to be lost on the creators, who feed into the fears the man had about coming out with this information.

Works cited

  • Poitras, Laura. Citizenfour. US, 2014.

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