Director: Laura Poitras
Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald
Year: 2014
Rating: R     Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: A-

Documentary is a deviant species among the cinematic genres; it’s a visual journalism trailing a real event and it wishes to supplement our knowledge about the world, edifying through its process. A great documentary provokes the viewers to think about the subject long after the movie is over, like how Act of Killing, a documentary about the Indonesian genocide, did about the unheeded violent nature of human beings. If nothing else, Citizenfour will complicate our notion of the proud democratic nation of United States. Not only is it important for us to watch this movie, but we also need to engage and get the relevant conversation going because the movie hints at the future where the principles of democracy is in real danger if we just stand back and watch.


Edward Snowden

Anyone who lives with his eyes and ears open must have heard of Edward Snowden. Just in case if you haven’t, he is a former employee of NSA (National Security Agency) who revealed the behind-the-scene operation of nation-wide surveillance on U.S. citizens (the fact unknown to us before Snowden) two years ago. According to the government, he is a traitor and he will be heavily prosecuted if he is captured. But to us who value our liberty and freedom, he is a hero. He risked his life to let the U.S. citizens know that our democracy is at stake.


“What people used to call liberty & freedom, we now call privacy.”

This documentary has an alluring beginning. It was Edward Snowden himself who first contacted Laura Poitras with the documents he’d obtained from NSA. (Those documents were recordings of our phone conversations.) Knowing the nature of her previous documentaries, he selected her for this task and sent her encrypted emails, and they agreed to meet. The bulk of the documentary is comprised of the following 4-day interview in a hotel room in Hong Kong, and we meet Edward Snowden, then 29-years old, mostly sitting on his bed, telling us what has happened for the last 10 years after 9/11, why he is risking his safety for the disclosure of the secret NSA operation, and what truly is at stake if the U.S. government continues to secretly record our lives in minute details.



“When we lost privacy, we lose agency, because we no longer feel free to express what we think.”

The scenes of the interview seem hardly edited, and we see this figure, whose name appeared so often in newspapers and magazines for the last couple years, calmly explaining the consequences of these secret surveillance. He looks like a young professor, erudite and well-mannered, articulating every word he says. He seems to be an ideal candidate for an intimate friend with whom we can talk about our concerns and troubles. The tension is kept throughout the movie because the interviewers decide to publish what they find out as the interview is still going. Soon afterward, they are on the move, because the U.S. government is trying to halt the further dissemination of Snowden’s revelation. He seeks helps from U.N., and one of the interviewer’s boyfriend is held captive in the airport. Along with the parts about Snowden, we witness other whistleblower from NSA testifying in Germany; we see Greenwald (one of the interviewers) giving statements about U.S. surveillance in Brazil.


“I am more willing to risk imprisonment, or any other negative outcome personally, than I am to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me, whom I care for equally as I do for myself.”

We tend to take our liberty for granted, but we should realize that the democracy we have now came with many sacrifices. With the advent of technology, the threat of Orwellian fear is looming in from different direction. The greatest achievement of this film is that we viewers become aware of such threat after watching this film. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, a well-deserved recognition.

Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras



Director Poitras in Bill Maher’s show discussing Citizenfour