Sunday, April 2, 2017

Film Review: Citizenfour

**** (out of ****)

Is truth stranger than fiction?

It is, unfortunately, a questions many people have to ask themselves given the political climate of the last couple of years, especially since the last U.S. Presidential election. Everything in the news seems so "fantastic", outrageous, that if someone told you these things 20 - 25 years ago you would have said to yourself, it's not possible.

Back when the story of the over reaching efforts of NSA surveillance and its illegal invasion of privacy towards United States citizens, many people were appalled. How on Earth could the government do this? The head of the agency went before congress and said "no". Information is not being collected on citizens concerning tracking on telephone calls and their duration, recordings of their conversations, knowledge of web search history...ect. Others however knew what was going on. It was called the Patriotic Act and was put into legislation after the terror attacks on 9/11.

Since the story broke it has never really stopped being discussed in the news and we find ourselves discussing it more frequently thanks to comments made by Donald Trump, claiming the former president, Barack Obama, issued wire taps on Trump Tower in New York. Also, a law was recently passed making it okay for search engine sites (Google) to sell your browsing history to corporations for advertising purposes.

With all this in mind and with last year's release of the Oliver Stone movie "Snowden" (2016) I thought it would be a good time to revisit the documentary "Citizenfour" (2014), a documentary I placed on my top ten list upon its release.

From a story-arc perspective "Citizenfour" is lacking. There isn't really a linear story being told. This has no beginning, middle and end. But, there is powerful information here. Crucial information every American, every person in the world, should know. Your government is spying on you. Everything you do is being seen by someone. That is no longer science-fiction or a conspiracy theory but has become "the new normal". Some people merely accept it. It is what it is. How can you stop it? But if it doesn't give you pause, quite frankly, there is something wrong with you. Why should we be watched? Why should the government know my location at all times? Why should the government know my purchase history? Read my emails, the duration of my telephone calls or my browsing history? The defense is, it is all in the name of national defense. It is how we fight terror. That is of course a blanket statement in which anything can fall under it and what has lead us to where we are. Some people rationalize and tell themselves, I have nothing to hide. Let the government spy on me. One, that is exactly what the government wants you to say and think. For them it is better if citizens are complicit and do not protest. It is also because of this train of thought, the rest of us must suffer.

That rationalization however is the product of fear. In theory bad things can happen anywhere. A terror attack can happen in a small rural town or a metropolitan city. In actuality though, it doesn't. But just as long as you are in a state of fear you will allow your government the 'freedom' to do whatever it has to in order to keep you safe. The extent of which includes being watched 24/7.

"Citizenfour" doesn't necessarily make these connections and instead argues the viewpoint, it is best to get all of this information out to the public in order to allow a debate. The debate is one-sided however. The media interviews politicians and intelligence officials, all who the share the opinion what Snowden did was wrong. As such society cannot have a proper debate. I would guess even with documentaries and news reports and legislation passed there are still Americans that don't understand the extent of the government's spying on citizens.

The value of "Citizenfour" is in its small way informs us of the scope of what is being done in the name of "national defense". It attempts to pull the curtain down and expose the men (peeping toms) behind it. It doesn't do this in a flashy way. Essentially "Citizenfour" is a conversation between Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is writing articles for the British newspaper, The Guardian, as Snowden is in hiding in a hotel in Hong Kong.

Even with the limited locations and flashy visuals, "Citizenfour" still remains captivating and frightening. It has the makings of a really good spy novel but it is not fiction. It is reality. Once the viewer allows the implications of what is being said to settle in and think about it, it can make you uncomfortable. Everything you do, the government knows about it. Just think about that. You have no privacy. I don't know if your microwave is taking picture of you (as suggested by Kellyanne Conway) but it doesn't need to because your television is storing your data (this it true! Look it up).

Of course the ultimate fear people have is, with all of this capability, what if people abuse this power? What if people use surveillance for revenge? That is essentially what Donald Trump was implying was President Obama's motivation. Could we / would we trust Trump to make these decisions to not abuse power?

Directed by Laura Poitras, "Citizenfour" received much critical acclaim when released and won the Academy Award for best documentary. Ms. Poitras considers this part of a trilogy she has made on the "war on terror" since 9/11 and it is probably the most accomplished documentary of her career and the one that has had the most far reaching effect.

For its ability to incite and provoke discussion, "Citizenfour" should not be missed. This is a topic that will be with us for the foreseeable future.