27 October 2016
Citizenfour is not just a film about Edward Snowden but also about individual freedom and moral choices. Photo: YouTube
Citizenfour is not just a film about Edward Snowden but also about individual freedom and moral choices. Photo: YouTube

Citizenfour: A moving story about choices and beliefs

Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about American intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden and the eight critical days he spent in Hong Kong, is a must-see for all Hong Kong citizens who care about their city.

Directed by independent filmmaker Laura Poitras, it is a story of bravery and cunning in the face of the determined effort by the government of the most powerful nation on earth to punish those involved in revealing the ugly truth about its illegal surveillance activities in the United States and elsewhere.

It is worth seeing not merely for its Hong Kong element – it is also a penetrating account of the whistleblower’s personality and his mental and moral struggles that eventually led him to this city.

It is thought-provoking, prompting us to reflect on issues such as freedom of speech, civic spirit and civil disobedience.

As the audience relives those intense days and nights when Snowden prepared to get arrested or even assassinated at any time, the risks he faced feel so real and imminent even if the actual events happened two years ago. 

As Poitras recounted at the first screening of the film in Hong Kong, Snowden told her that he would never commit suicide – to warn her of what his enemies might do and tell the public in case they got hold of him.

In fact, all the characters involved in protecting Snowden and helping him in his earthshaking revelations knew of the serious consequences of their actions, of the risks associated with the choices they made.

For the filmmaker Poitras, her ultimate goal was to “be behind the camera with people, in real time, confronting life decisions”, to protect the footage and reveal it to the public – she made it. (Laura Poitras, in Holder of Secret, the New Yorker Oct. 24, 2014 Issue

For journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, their goal was to reveal the truth to the world in a timely manner without compromising Snowden’s safety – they made it.

For Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man, the Hong Kong human rights lawyers, they employed their legal expertise and local knowledge, and successfully protected Snowden to make his “great escape”.

As a lawyer myself, I could not resist wondering how Robert and Jonathan managed to get a fugitive wanted by the US government through the highest levels of intelligence screening and media searches, enabling him to disappear in the crowds of Hong Kong, and eventually make his way to an airplane that took him to his planned destination despite a problem with his passport. It was a mission impossible, but they also made it.

Beliefs and choices

People may treat this documentary as a one-man show starring Edward Snowden. Indeed the story revolves around him and delves into the multiple dimensions of his personality – his intelligence, sincerity, eloquence, as well as his occasionally betrayed anxiety and vulnerability.

The film portrays Snowden not just as passionate whistleblower who stood firm on his principles and values, but more importantly as a human being who felt the whole weight of his decisions, his eyes welling up when thinking about his girlfriend and the family he left behind.

Despite its portrayal of Snowden’s captivating personality, Citizenfour is more than just about him. 

What elevates the whole story to a higher plane is the collective effort of everyone involved, including the filmmakers, journalists, lawyers and activists, to achieve their common goal.

For me, the story is about beliefs and choices. It is the informed choices made by the different characters that facilitated the successful execution of each phase of the plan, but it is their shared belief that drew the individuals together.

Snowden chose to reach out to these people, i.e., Poitras and Greenwald, to report the story, as they have proven themselves to be fearless and reliable fighters against problematic US policies carried out in the name of national interest.

As Snowden wrote to Poitras, it is not he who chose Poitras – it is Poitras’ own actions (by making documentaries critical of US abuse of power in the name of anti-terrorism) that chose her.

Greenwald later recounted that he “felt a kinship” with Snowden and his world view from the way Snowden described his motivations in his initial correspondence with the journalists. Snowden believed NSA’s massive surveillance encroached upon people’s privacy and was thus unconstitutional.

“By understanding the mechanism through which privacy is violated, we can win here,” he told Poitras and Greenwald.

Always working on the most controversial stories, Poitras and Greenwald were extremely wary when dealing with any “source” allegedly in possession of “interesting story”. However, they both decided to rely on their intuition and put their faith in Snowden because there was something “intangible yet powerful” about him.

There is a moment in the documentary where we clearly see Snowden and Greenwald connecting with each other. On June 9, 2013, as Greenwald discussed with Snowden the tremendous risks they were facing following the revelation of Snowden’s identity, Snowden told Greenwald that he wanted to paint target circles on his back because he wanted to invert the “pattern” that expects a whistleblower to be a coward divulging secrets in the dark.

As he believed his choice was righteous, he would not be afraid to come out. “I am not afraid because this is the choice I’ve made; you are not going to bully me as you have bullied everyone else.”

But Greenwald was equally passionate. His eyes glaring, he blurted out to Snowden: “You come out because you want to come out!”

Snowden had a lot of choices to make – and he just hit them all right, sometimes by wit and sometimes by guts. He chose Hong Kong (as the venue of his revelations) because he observed that the city had “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that could and would resist the dictates of the US government. (Edward Snowden: the Whistleblower behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations, the Guardian, June 9, 2013

He also chose to cooperate with the journalists because he believed the press was a “critical part of American life”. (Professor Laurence Lessig’s interview with Snowden at the Harvard Law School via Google Hangout, Oct. 20, 2014)

He also chose to involve multiple media outlets rather than just one so they could compete with each other to achieve the best reporting. He deliberately stayed away from certain media that had a history of suppressing extremely sensitive materials of this kind.

In his “great escape”, he chose the flight route that only covered China and Russia, probably the only two world powers where America had to refrain from intervention.

And the most important is his choice of allegiance to his conscience over personal interest.

Snowden is not a lawyer – he doesn’t even have a high school diploma. But the sophisticated way he articulated law-related issues exhibited his profound understanding of the law.

His deep faith in the US Constitution, particularly the right to privacy enshrined in the Fourth Amendment (this is probably why he chose to call himself “Citizenfour”), prompted him to sacrifice everything in his life in defense of what he viewed as “American values” – privacy, transparency and intellectual freedom.

His motivation is public interest – to stop the encroachment on people’s privacy, which creates a chilling effect and limits the boundary of intellectual exploration.

In fact, the very reason behind his revelation is his desire to stimulate a worldwide debate about people’s right to privacy and internet freedom. He wanted to go public because he saw it as not just his war against unrestrained governmental power; it is a public interest issue that concerns everyone.  

Civil disobedience

A legitimate question arises – are we entitled to break the law for certain values we think we should uphold? What will become of this world if everyone is to disregard the law in the name of individual beliefs? We thus seem to return to the classic debate about civil disobedience. There may never be a convenient resolution of such a debate, but I believe several relevant factors in Snowden’s case lend him some justification.

First, he exhausted efforts within the institutional framework by raising the possible unconstitutionality of certain NSA programs to his supervisors, but to no avail. At that point, he concluded that there would be no practical way for the institution to correct itself. In fact, his assessment is right – in December 2013, a federal court ruled that NSA’s collection of US phone metadata is “likely unconstitutional”.

Second, he did not just reveal the secrets recklessly – as some would do when revealing secrets about national security. Instead, he conscientiously “evaluated every single document” he disclosed “to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest”.

He said, “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.” (Edward Snowden: the Whistleblower behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations, the Guardian, June 9, 2013

He put faith in the journalists’ judgment call on what to disclose (among the documents he assessed as not harmful to public interest). As shown in the documentary, he emphasized that journalists should make the final decision (on what to disclose) to remove his personal prejudices about any particular document.

All the hard choices paid off. The whistleblower is sound and safe to witness the worldwide debate, awareness and reforms he stirred. He is even right in his belief in the “internet principle of the Hydra” – “They can stomp me if they want to, but there will be seven more to take my place.”

Apparently, more people within the government have been inspired and motivated by his war against massive surveillance. Some of them have even started taking certain actions against the scheme.

More journalists, lawyers and activists have joined the ongoing, expanded war against unrestrained government power started by Snowden and his predecessors (such as William Binney and Chelsea Manning).

It is just a beginning.


The movie will be shown in Hong Kong cinemas from May 7

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