Snowden Scenes

The Whistleblower Speaks

Edward Snowden in a scene from Citizenfour. Source. dpa
Edward Snowden in a scene from Citizenfour.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin-based filmmaker Laura Poitras has worked with Edward Snowden from the very beginning. Her documentary gives us an insight into the man who is turning into a legend.

  • Facts


    • Edward Snowden was revealed to be the man behind the NSA revelations in June 2013.
    • He fled to Hong Kong and later to Moscow where he was eventually given permission to stay.
    • Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald were awarded the prestigious Polk award for journalism in April 2014 for their work on the NSA revelations.
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Edward Snowden wants to remain the focus of his own scandal. He wants to be the one who is “nailed to the cross.” He tells the filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has been with him at every step of his complex journey to world recognition, approbation and acclaim, that as long as he is the focus, his family and girlfriend are safe from investigation.

Ms. Poitras was one of the journalists who Mr. Snowden, a former United States intelligence worker, first contacted in January 2013, to reveal the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs.  An American, Ms. Poitras works from Berlin, where she and several journalists in Mr. Snowden’s orbit have settled to avoid retribution and arrest should they return to the United States.

Throughout “CitizenFour,” the documentary Ms. Poitras has made about the whistleblower, she and Mr. Snowden communicate with each other digitally. Their messages appear repeatedly as if happening in real time. There is a focus on Mr. Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room. He sits on the bed unshaven, with bare feet sticking out from under the covers, wearing rimless glasses that you only see on Germans or on accountants.

It says very little about his mission. Mr. Snowden says the world needed to know what he revealed. His revelations should change the world, make it better. He brings out dark secrets into the light. What we get instead, from anonymous beds in anonymous hotel rooms, is a portrait of this pale, often awkward man who told the world’s biggest secrets.

Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald accept the Polk award for reporting in New York in April 2014. Source: dpa
Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald accept the Polk award for reporting in New York in April 2014. Source: DPA

The 52-year-old Ms. Poitras, whose documentary opens in the United States this week, was involved with the NSA revelations from the very beginning. Mr. Snowden turned to her and to journalist Glenn Greenwald to help him process his material and turn it into a form that could be used by the media. The pair travelled to Hong Kong, where they met in a hotel room, and Mr. Snowden passed on his secrets. Mr. Snowden’s past has been burned away. His future is unclear. In the days that followed, Mr. Greenwald published his scoop. Poitras continued to make her documentary. For Mr. Snowden, his quiet middle class existence at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, was gone forever.

Booz Allen Hamilton had done some work for the NSA, and Mr. Snowden, during his time there, came across details of Prism, the program through which American intelligence agencies spied on Internet users across the world. He also encountered the surveillance carried out by Britain’s intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ, which delved deeper, into e-mails, photos and messages on social networks. As Mr. Snowden sits alone in Asia, all this information is revealed to the world. Now his face is everywhere.

The documentary covers this all in detail: Mr. Snowden, who first appears so stoic and serene in his hotel, is then seen to be growing increasingly uneasy. He learns his house is being monitored, and his rent is not transferred. “What happens, happens,” he says, but his sanguinity is only half-convincing.

It is a peculiarity of the NSA affair that although it appears to be a huge story, it is hard at first to understand what it is all about. It showed, for the first time, the extent to which government authorities monitored communications. But the documentary does not really address the issue of why the revelations are so damaging.

States collect data on people who have committed crimes in the past, or those they believe may commit crimes in the future. This is obviously too abstract, too unwieldy a concept to narrate through a documentary. Ms. Poitras is obviously aware of these shortcomings. But every film needs a good plot, a human face, intrigue, a dramatic escalation of events. It must do more than just deliver a set of musings on the freedom of information and official secrets. It must deliver a story.

Is Edward Snowden being crucified, or is he the least important player in a greater drama?

Mr. Snowden said, right at the beginning, that “I am not the story here.” He wanted the focus to be on the information he was delivering. He complained the media focused too much on him as a person. But of course, there is an inherent contradiction in the fact that he makes himself the protagonist of a film that ends up being mostly about him. He has a higher profile than his peers: Neither William Binney, the senior NSA official who turned whistleblower in 2001, nor the hacker Jacob Applebaum who revealed how the state harvests our personal information, nor Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is in his own, semi-permanent transit area in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, are given as high a profile.

Snowden said in one breath that he feels he has made no sacrifice because his revelations are a public good and he is exhilarated by the role he is playing. A few moments later, he speaks in a faltering voice about how hard it is for him to leave his former life behind. Is he a hero, or a victim? Is he being crucified, or is he the least important player in a greater drama?

In one of the final scenes of the film Mr. Snowden and Mr. Greenwald speak enthusiastically about a whistleblower who will soon publish more sensitive, yet more powerful revelations. The viewer is not sure if this is significant. The film certainly makes the compelling case that there will be more like Mr. Snowden. He is the everyman, and there will be more like him. But for now, the hero is still a bureaucrat with rimless glasses, with messy hair and a too large jacket, talking on a hotel phone. The biggest cross he must bear, it seems, is to be the human face of the drama he has created in the world.

When Mr. Snowden is filmed in Hong Kong, he does not yet know if Russia will grant him asylum. He does not know that his girlfriend, who he left in America, will eventually move in with him in Moscow. We see the couple at the end, cooking in their kitchen. They look domestic and mundane. A new life has begun.

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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