Citizen Four: Effectiveness of Documentary

As a human rights activist, I was incredibly fascinated by Laura Poitras’ 2014 film Citizen Four and especially drawn to the content and how it’s displayed. The narrative, though taking place mostly in Edward Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room, played out swiftly and enabled the viewer to understand Snowden’s choices in how he ‘blew the whistle.’ The chronological form of the film is brilliantly structured in a way that the audience doesn’t feel as if it’s being drawn through a timeline of events. On the contrary, each time break served as a layer of suspense to the unfolding of Snowden’s revelations. The dark scenes with voice over ordered a tension within the clips that was further propped by b-roll. For instance, I found the footage of the mega-information depository in Utah quite chilling, even haunting especially given the Obama administration’s choice to put a target on Snowden’s back in lieu of the disclosures rather than working to protect the rights and privacy of the American citizens against the “greatest weapon of oppression” in Snowden’s words. The meticulous order of events presented, coupled with images and footage, therefore worked successfully to convey the storyline.

However, while I do admire the above said aspects of the film, I do think the film could have been presented in a way such that the viewer could better understand the full reach of the NSA’s surveillance program. Rather than spending time with Snowden in the hotel room, stronger content may have been showing interviews with more people on the matter and fuller analysis on the subject of surveillance. Of course, the hotel room scenes act to build suspense through Snowden’s perspective but at the same time I felt like as though these moments were taking away from my better understanding of the content, which was the point of the film. The long shots of him doing his hair, etc., could have been better used to provide more information about the actual capabilities of the data gathering and their reach as by the end of the film I felt like I had been told only the bare minimum and maybe a little more. The parts that did contain explanations at times confused me with the level of technospeak, thereby causing me–a viewer–to lose crucial details within the unwrapping of the events. In other words, the presented elaborations may cause a drift between the intentions of the filmmaker–to present vital information to the general public–with the audience, the general public. The story is best interpreted, thus, by those who already know it.

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