Citizenfour (Germany-US-UK 2014)

Citizenfour for the people

Citizenfour for the people

Edward Snowden is a very 21st century hero: whistleblowing on how everyone is being spied upon via compromised networks. Whistleblowers are the heroes of our time and it’s an indictment of our time that they often end up more vilified than the criminals they are revealing. Snowden says, in Laura Poitras’ fabulous film, he hopes that when he is ‘shut up’, like the beheaded Hydra, seven other whistleblowers will appear behind him. They haven’t, testimony to the treatment they know they will receive but also the complicity that those who work for ‘security agencies’ have in the destruction of our ability to have a private life.

Along with Wikileaks, Snowden revealed what many of the left have always suspected: the security services operate beyond the law and legislatures have no desire the rein them in. Although this fact wasn’t a surprise, the breadth of their infiltration of our communications is still shocking. Without people like Snowden, and reporters such as Glenn Greenwald, along with The Guardian newspaper, we would well and truly be screwed. Or would we? We probably are anyway.

It’s unclear to me what affect the revelations have had upon the NSA, in America, and GCHQ in the UK; the latter, Snowden says, has even greater penetration of British communications than the NSA has over American’s. The response of many people seems to be to shrug as if it isn’t important. This might be because they are politically on the right (though it is quite striking that the libertarian right – to which Snowden belongs – has mostly been quiet) or they don’t want to hear such disturbing talk.

Many years ago, when I sold hotdogs at Chester Zoo during the summer, my fellow salesman delighted in regaling me with his belief that the ‘general public is thick’. I still don’t believe this but I think ‘the general public is ignorant’. Part of this is due to consumption of the right-wing media. Take the Daily Mail‘s front page (yesterday) that expressed shock that the charity Cage, which assists people who’ve been ‘targeted’ by the security services, should say that it is possible that ‘Jihadi John’s’ unspeakable behaviour (in beheading victims on behalf of ISIS) was in part caused by harassment by MI5. The Mail, in particular, is like a child who avoids hearing anything contrary to their beliefs by putting their hands over their ears and sings ‘la-la-la . . . ‘ It’s obvious that harassment could cause radicalisation but to acknowledge this would lead to questions about the effectiveness of security policy. Toward the end of Citizenfour it’s revealed that the NSA has 1.2 million people on its watch list! Whilst computer surveillance can watch us all, the security services don’t have the resources to directly monitor everyone on the lists. At some point they may decide, in order for us to be safe, internment without trial of suspects is needed.

The ignorance of the public can also be ‘wilful’: they are more interested in celebrity gossip than issues that affect their lives. For example, on Thursday the FCC guaranteed net neutrality, a triumph against the increasing commercialisation of the internet, however the internet was ‘full’ of ‘the dress’.


Like George Romero’s zombies finding shopping malls reassuring, many won’t deal with the issues of our time (until they are the victims).

All this surveillance is done in the name of the bogus ‘war on terror’. Terrorists have no power to threaten nation states so they commit atrocities in the hope that the states will over-react and create a fertile ground for further recruitment of terrorists. I would say ‘stupidly our leaders over-react every time’ except I believe they know exactly what they are doing: terrorist acts become an excuse for more government control. In this way ISIS and governments have a symbiotic relationship: the victims are ordinary people of all cultures.

Well done to the Academy for awarding this documentary an Oscar; it was by far the most important film of the contenders but Radio 4’s Today programme managed to avoid mentioning it. Hopefully the award will raise its profile (it’s not available on DVD in the UK) as will Channel 4’s screening (in a graveyard slot but that matters little these days). Quite simply this is a film that all should see though it will be difficult to use in schools without plenty of background information but it is necessary to fit it into the curriculum!


  1. keith1942

    I was impressed with this film. Though there was an apparent contradiction between Snowden’s professed ambivalence about being the focus rather than the the issues and the film’s treatment of him.
    As far as people’s attitudes and values, we need to get back to Marx’s usage of ideology. Not just the dominant ideas but also the failure to discern the underlying relations. Marx demonstrates in Capital that what we term the superstructure embodies the relations of capitalist mode of production. In terms of security the legal system, the language of the political discourse and the media’s treatment of ‘personal danger’ reinforce an idea of the state’s ‘necessity’ for these sorts of actions.
    I am trying to remember the last films I saw that embodies this understanding. I will post on it when I remember.


  2. Roy Stafford

    You make some excellent points in the post and both you and Keith think the film is impressive. I confess that despite this I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for the prospect of watching it. And that goes for most of these documentaries exposing the workings of the state in the US and UK. Why is that? Perhaps it’s my cynicism –or my resignation? Little of what is exposed surprises me any more. I guess what would attract me are concrete suggestions about how to change things. I will watch purely fictional films about whistleblowers and sometimes these do explore the psychological, political, ethical, moral etc. dilemmas about working with/exposing the workings of the state. I think Keith is right – we need more films that explore how we understand Marx’s ideas. Whether they should be documentaries and what kind of documentaries might work best is certainly worth discussing.


  3. nicklacey

    Agree with Keith’s Marxism prescription too. While the doc was focusing on Snowden, it wasn’t about him an individual rather it captured the moment of him as ‘citizenfour’, the pseudonym he used when contacting Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Poitras’ doc focuses mostly on the few interviews Snowden gave Greenwald before going ‘underground’ and, as such, is a portrait of the ‘whistleblower’ in the moment of ‘blowing’. It’s not about analysing the global political picture though, of course, we do need films that do that.

    ‘Citizenfour’ is reportage of Snowden revealing the secrets and is an important record of that moment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.