Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Reconstructing Autonomy in Citizenfour

-- By EvelynPang - 06 Mar 2015

Privacy is linked to a sense of personal autonomy and control, while surveillance removes an individual’s ability to construct his or her own narrative by folding personal information into a broader system of control. Yet, how can we reconcile the fact that this overarching system does not necessarily have the best interest of the people it surveys at heart with the knowledge that it is our very own government doing the surveillance? Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour focuses on how Edward Snowden’s revelations unfold and the atmosphere that receives them. Much has been said about the film’s contents, its inception, and the awards that it has garnered. Beyond its specific details, however, Citizenfour’s deliberate lack of aggressive, dictatorial direction actually restores autonomy by focusing on the present as it unfolds in a tense situation. It allows viewers to see how the most high-stakes form of civil disobedience comes into being by stripping away after-the-fact dissection and inviting its audience to examine their own moralities without explicit preaching. Edward Snowden recently said that “the law doesn't defend us; we defend the law. And when it becomes contrary to our morals, we have both the right and the responsibility to rebalance it toward just ends.” Although Citizenfour is not an explicit propaganda machine, its deliberate style uses a placid artistry to highlight the blandness with which we receive shocking news, and reminds us that the most insidious invasions on democracy are often painted with a fašade of the ordinary. By extension, it invites us to reflect on whether our own ordinariness can incite change that feels as strong as Snowden’s disclosures, with possibly even greater impact.

Citizenfour captures ordinary moments (Snowden at his computer, watching television, brushing his hair, cooking dinner with his girlfriend) and informs its audience that actions which change the world do not take place in a heightened level of reality. By stripping the film of bombastic aesthetics, Poitras restores a sense of agency in her audience – their vision is not obscured by anything other than editing, which is a rarity in today’s sound bite world. Her editor, Mathilde Bonnefoy, previously worked on Tom Twyker’s Run Lola Run. There’s a sense of deliberate construction in the editing that feels lifted from the world of fiction, which highlights how self-conscious fiction can be more real than the truth we are fed by the media and the government. Citizenfour reminds its audience that true personal agency cannot coexist with a government that seeks control by transforming a desire for autonomy into a fear of the unknown and, ultimately, apathy in the face of unlimited disclosure. The difficulty of catalyzing change lies in concentrating various branches personal outrage into a tangible collective.

Poitras documents Snowden’s reactions as his disclosures gain public attention. It is a narrative line that we are familiar with through news outlets, but the diegetic sounds the hotel room and the lack of talking heads or infographics made directly to serve the film offer us a visceral vision of Poitras’ artistic prerogative. She says that she doesn’t want to make a “reactive” film, “[b]ecause the danger is if you start to react to what the news is doing you’ll make something that won’t have legs.” The audience, not the film, should be reactive. It is the film’s job to incite this reaction, but in order to do so, it must be told in a cinema veritÚ style. It would be false to say that Citizenfour has no political bent, but absence of patronizing exposition (so common in contemporary documentaries) makes it clear to the audience that this is neither a story with a summary nor an exploration of how we got from point A to B. Instead, it provides a look at how point B, the current state of government surveillance, is deconstructed without being fully dismantled. The film unmasks the skeleton of the surveillance state, but knows that the next steps are in the hands of its audience.

Although Citizenfour is inevitably a story about Snowden, Poitras shies away from portraying him as an iconoclastic demagogue. She says, “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.” This philosophy is reflected in her films – political stories that ask questions not commonly trotted out by mainstream media. They are stories that use a palette which might be considered 'bland' by our sensory-overload culture in order to remove pyrotechnic distractions and force the audience to confront scenes that feel lifted from their own lives. If surveillance is justified by preying on people’s fears of uncertainty and losing control, then the way to combat it is the place a sense of autonomy back into the hands of the public. But how can we shock ourselves into action in the face of a media industry that operates on shock? The answer is to strip away a familiar aesthetic (the scrolling headlines of CNN that feel jarring in the middle of Citizenfour) and suggest to one’s audience that recapturing a sense of control must come from consciously opting out of a system designed to keep its occupants docile with a false sense of autonomy. Although Citizenfour does not provide a template for transforming personal outrage into a sense of collective responsibility, it does provide its viewers with an example of one individual’s personal sacrifice. If he was able to do so much, what’s holding each of us back, aside from the fear this very system creates?

I think this is a thoughtful and generous review. Its theme makes the best one can of the passivity which is one of Laura Poitras' defining characteristics as a film-maker. That the review is in no doubt whether Laura or Mr Snowden is the "auteur" is both interesting and also generous in another sense. I am not sure whether it is true, but I think this is a very strong argument for its subject.


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r3 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:52:07 - MarkDrake
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