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Editor’s View: Secret History

As someone involved in video production, whether nonfiction or narrative, you should make time to see what I think is the most important film of the year, Citizenfour. Although it’s assembled almost like a thriller, it’s the amazing true story of filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald and their encounters with whistleblower Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Citizenfour represents the best of what filmmaking can be: brave, important, human, global.

Watching Poitras, who’s so sensitive and skilled, as she pursues initial e-mail communication with Snowden—he contacted her, identifying himself as “Citizenfour,” ready to expose covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other American intelligence agencies—makes you understand immediately why we need more documentary filmmakers in the world.

“I come out of the tradition of cinema vérité, where you follow events as they unfold before your eyes, in real time,” Poitras explains in an interview with Bilge Ebiri. “And when you do, you get all the drama and uncertainty that comes along with life. In this case, going to Hong Kong and being in the room with Snowden…. This is a person at the point of absolute no return. It has inherent drama. He’s made these decisions that have brought him to this point. So why would somebody make this choice, and what are their motivations, and how can you cope with that kind of stress? All those things are allowed to become part of the film. Whereas when you sit people down and ask them to narrate and do interviews, you can lose the sense of uncertainty and risk and danger—because once things have happened, the story becomes linear rather than one of uncertainty and multiple possibilities. But yeah, I like having the protagonist drive the film to a certain extent and through their actions reveal deeper issues.”

The meetings with Snowden are tense, and the information exchanged is obviously dangerous, but she’s determined and tenacious and … well, let me just recommend you see the film, regardless of your interest in or opinion of governmental surveillance. Poitras followed this lead to uncover a giant story and share it with an audience, as both a documenter and participant, but there many, many non-giant stories that are important.