Born in 2000, the impact of 9/11 on today’s world is not as easily graspable for me as it is for my parents. Of course, the September 11th attacks remain in the foreground of my experience growing up in America. Adults countlessly retold the horrors of the day––especially my mother, for whom being a flight attendant working in Boston, involved a close proximity to the psychological reality of 9/11 and its preceding “Age of Terror”. There isn’t a pre-9/11 America in my consciousness; the War on Terror, the surveillance state, the xenophobic
rhetoric––these were all my realities. I never conceived these actualities as new.
I grew up during the rise of Big Tech, just at the cusp of an entrance into a smartphone dominated world. The fight for “privacy” is ever-relevant, information-technology companies like Facebook caught up in endless privacy-related scandals. As the everyday becomes more and more convenient, we have less ownership over our lives, heightening the alarming question of privacy. But for many, intrusion is expected. It is not uncommon for my friends and I to joke about the “FBI” watching us through our computer screens. For many, surveillance is understood and accepted as a reality.
Laura Poitras has taken on the age of terror, surveillance, and whistleblowers as documentary subjects, beginning with My Country, My Country (2006), an examination of Iraq under U.S. occupation. CitizenFour (2014), the most lauded of her filmography, paints a portrait of Edward Snowden, now cemented in the contemporary imagination as either selfless democracy-serving hero and self-righteous traitor. CitizenFour is captivating because of Poitras’ subtle wit. Her physical presence in the film is minimal, at least compared to Risk (2016), where her personal relationship with Julian Assange is at the forefront. What makes CitizenFour remarkable, is that Poitras pays attention to the story’s undercurrent of absurdity––Snowden’s paranoia is both reasonable and ridiculous, and radiates an electric tension throughout the entirety of the documentary.
Snowden exists in the film either through his words––an array of encrypted emails read by Poitras––or confined in his hotel room in Hong Kong, where he divulges classified N.S.A. information to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and investigative journalist Ewen MacAskill. Considering the global implications of his leaks, Snowden’s demeanor is surprisingly unassuming. His intellect shows itself through his technical jargon, though his faulty facade of calm fails him, giving away his anxiety. The “paranoia bug” as Greenwald calls it, has clearly infected him––and all those in his vicinity.
“Could you pass me my magic, uh, mantle of power?” Poitras passes Snowden a red towel, which he uses to cover himself and Greenwald’s laptop. Moments later, the hotel’s fire alarms begin buzzing. For Snowden, the alarm is immediately panic-inducing: “Maybe they got mad when they couldn’t listen in to us via the phone anymore.” Even after finding out the hotel is testing their alarm, the nervous buzz never subsides. Snowden summarizes the stolen N.S.A. documents to Greenwald and MacAskill, the fire alarm intermittently ringing in the background. A happy-accident for Poitras, the fire alarm reveals to us Snowden’s psychological unpreparedness.
In the same child-like spirit of Snowden’s “mantle of power”, the film ends with an equally amusing (and terrifying) scene. Greenwald and Snowden communicate, partially in words and partially over notes written on scrap paper. After their conversation, Greenwald rips up the remaining paper, forming a tiny pile on a desk––Poitras zooms in and focuses on one piece, the word “POTUS” still legible. Government corruption looms over them, the gnawing question of privacy never disappears. In the words of Ian Bogost of The Atlantic:
“…the opponent in the data-privacy invasion is not a comic-book enemy of fixed form, one that can be cornered, compromised, and defeated. Instead it’s a hazy murk, a chilling, Lovecraftian murmur that can’t be seen, let alone touched, let alone vanquished. Even ‘the Cloud’ isn’t the right metaphor, because pumping out its gaseous poison only draws in a new, cold draft of it from sources unseen…Your data is everywhere, and nowhere, and you cannot escape it, or what it might yet do to you.”
*I would highly recommend watching Laura Poitras’ Risk (2017), her portrait of Julian Assange and The Oath (2010), about two men and their involvement with al-Qaeda, Osama Bin-Laden and 9/11. For more on surveillance, I would also recommend reading Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness, which focuses on surveillance (pre-digital era onward) and its race-related consequences. This short documentary on surveillance capitalism (as per Shoshana Zuboff) is also interesting––albeit at times alarmist––and provides a more digestible version of her 658 page book.
*CitizenFour (2014) is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Bogost, Ian. “Welcome to the Age of Privacy Nihilism.” The Atlantic, 23 August 2018,
https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/08/the-age-of-privacy-nihilism-is-here/568198/. Accessed 22 October 2020.