Documentary filmmaking can be an act of righteous defiance. When the subject matter was once considered taboo, inaccessible or not permitted for public viewing, the film in question can be a testament to free speech and a cinematic form of rebellion against unseen figures, attempting to silence the artist. Previous documentaries, that were controversial, illuminating and essential, like “The Thin Blue Line,” “Harlan County USA” and “Roger & Me” come to mind. In those cases, it’s hard to imagine a representation of those incidents without the perspective, breakthrough coverage and necessary viewpoints those filmmakers brought to their documentaries.
The aforementioned documentaries allowed contrasting viewpoints (and debatable use of artistic license) in their presentations of narrative and fact. Their filmmaker’s strongest weapons were cameras that captured undeniable truths, pushing up against an opposition that wanted their message silenced. There are even more grave, eye opening documentaries that managed to sneak through, like Laura Poitras’ scary, mind boggling “Citizenfour,” which gives us the sensation of watching a massive breach of worldwide privacy becoming public knowledge. Some movies are merely released. This one escaped and is a bold, essential work of true rebellion.
It’s easy to think of documentary filmmaking in these terms when your subject matter is Ed Snowden and the dangerous powers and abuses provided by the Patriot Act.
A series of quiet, slowly evolving scenes unfold, as filmed testimonies from conferences and meetings evoke the troubling fact many worldwide feel about the lack of internet privacy. We not only watch a speaker disclose that our online secrets aren’t safe, but Poitras shows us exactly where our web info is being held, as well as those of countless others. Adding to the sinister feel and creeping paranoia of the content is the unsettling, ambient score by Nine Inch Nails.
We build to the carefully planned meet up in a Hong Kong hotel with Poitras (who films and is never shown), reporter Glenn Greenwald and Snowden. Deeply unsettling, earth shaking secrets about what Snowden does (or did) for a living come tumbling out and Greenwald listens carefully, all too aware of the danger they’re both in.
When we see Snowden, it’s a jarring contrast to the secretive, shrouded voice in the shadows. In plain view, he looks young, handsome and smiles easily. He’s the last person you’d expect to see turn up as the elusive whistle blower, but its him alright. It’s like looking at Deep Throat in broad daylight, right as he fed his devastating secrets to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
A remarkable quality of Laura Poitras’ documentary is that we’re seeing events unfold in order, with the main players in full view. Anyone unfamiliar or only somewhat aware of the Snowden case will have a front row seat and witness history being made as it was captured on camera.
Reportedly, Oliver Stone is preparing his film on the subject, with Joseph-Gordon Levitt playing Snowden. Presumably, it will be a much more cinematic work than “Citizenfour,” which gives us access to the exposition, conversations and thought process of the main figures but doesn’t show them alluding authorities, globe-trotting or playing shadow games with those in pursuit.
While “Citizenfour” mostly consists of conversation, that isn’t to say it’s dull or lacking style. Establishing shots and birds-eye-view imagery of looking down on the colossal hotel where Greenwald and Snowden were holed up wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Mann film (in fact, Mann’s forthcoming “Blackhat” looks like an action movie answer to “Citizenfour”).
Poitras’ film kept me engaged and doesn’t editorialize Snowden, though the Obama presidency and the abuses of the Patriot Act receive ample criticism. I’ve heard Snowden referred to as a traitor and a snitch, but I don’t agree with that. If “Citizenfour” can be trusted, it’s that Snowden did a truly brave and horribly difficult thing. We don’t see a trace of cockiness or bravado to him, only a determined but lonely young man who knows his life as he knew it is over.
Citizenfour plays 5pm tonight at the Maui Film Festival First Light. Call 808.579.9244 or go to www.mauifilmfestival.com for tickets.