In 2011, I and my friends were bowled over by a television series called “Person of Interest”. It showed how a computer genius created an AI system which used the cameras and audio receptors of almost every device in the city to be able to predict murders and crimes and pop up the social security numbers of the ones or one involved. Little did we imagine that the US government would come out with its own system to spy on its own citizen as well as millions of others. Citizenfour is a path breaking documentary which takes us on a journey with a reporter and a documentary film maker as they embark on a quest to Hong Kong to interview the whistle-blower who exposed his own government.
Edward Snowden meets with his interviewers and blows off the lid of one of the most devastating exposes of the recent time. He brings to the fore the massive effort and tools that the US government is engaging under the veil of the “Patriot’s Act” to spy on the citizen with the help of the biggest telecommunication companies. As the interviews go on, more and more bitter truths come to the fore. Snowden, gradually makes himself known as the whistle-blower and then finds himself pursued by the government who would stop at nothing to get him back to the US. He escapes to Russia. Given a year to live as a refugee, the reporter and documentary film maker meet him again one last time before the film ends.
Citizenfour has very little in terms of entertainment. What you see is a bunch of people talk about highly technical subjects, shot sitting mostly in a hotel room. Every time the camera hovers out of the room it’s just for a minute or two. If it’s not the interviews in the hotel room then it’s a public meeting or a lecture for that matter. That’s not entertainment is it? But once you are able to zero in on the sheer magnitude of the expose and the monumental risks, which at many junctures appears plain stupid and anti-national, you are bound to be engrossed in the narrative. The film move sat a leisurely pace. The story that unfolds could have been wrapped up easily in about 90 minutes but the director takes a rather long 2 hours to unfold her masterpiece.
There are takes which linger, there are scenes in which nothing happens and there are sequences where you just see stuff typed in white against a black screen. But each of these things leaves a lasting impression on you. The film unfolds in a manner which is easy for anyone and everyone to pick up. The explanations are well laid out which again makes for easy understanding and above all the film has one hell of a story to tell. At so many junctures it works like an Oscar worthy drama. I am talking about the scene where Snowden is reading about how his longtime girlfriend has been questioned and subsequently harassed by the government agencies. The camera lingers on Snowden for a long time as he is typing out messages and reading the ones that he has received. He gets up and then says something to the director which is so heart breaking that I really felt for the man.
That’s the power of a superb documentary. To be able to document the truth with enough drama to keep the audiences interested is what we want. The film boasts of superb editing. Voice overs, written text and interviews gelled together organically to provide a compounded effect which is overwhelming at many junctures. The cinematography is another plus. Laura makes it a point to use interesting angles and lingers on the men just enough to let you get an exact feel of what might be going on through their heads. The background score is wonderful and complements the tense environment to the ‘t’.
Citizenfour won the academy award for best documentary in the Oscars 2015. That alone stands testimony to its greatness. There is very little left to be said about it sans the fact that it is a different film for different people just like Snowden is. While many will look at it from the perspective of their own privacy being intruded upon by the government machinery, others will look at it as one man’s effort to bring down a system to its knees for what he believes is right. Many will also look at Snowden as a traitor for exposing a seemingly full proof security blanket that the US was planning to go to sleep under. Others will view it as a document of epic importance, chronicling the events which exposed one of the biggest acts of espionage that the world has ever seen. Whatever may be your reason, Citizenfour is a must watch.