Dir. Laura Poitras
Academy Award Nominations: Documentary Feature.
You can’t get much closer to an unfolding event than Laura Poitras gets to the whistle-blowing by Edward Snowden in 2013, but maybe a little more distance would’ve helped make her resulting documentary more effective.
In 2013, Oscar-winning documentary film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted by an anonymous source wanting to disseminate shocking information about the U.S. surveillance program. This film is formed mainly from Poitras documenting the meeting between that now well-known NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and the journalists he had chosen to entrust with getting the documents and information out to the public.
This is ‘documenting’ almost in the most raw sense of the word. It’s not that the film is an expose, because the revelations have already been released through the media years ago, it’s more the behind-the-scenes of how that all came about. The bulk of the film is communications and the meetings between Snowden and the two, Poitras and Greenwald, mostly in a hotel in Hong Kong. The rest of the film is footage from other events such as court appearances and senate hearings about surveillance, much of which is before and after, setting up the background to the situation and then the aftermath of it. There’s no reaching out to other sides of the debate, it’s quite one-sided, and though some stories only need one side, it would’ve been nice to see tough questions being asked and answered which would add a depth that I sadly felt is lacking. Despite being in a room with investigative journalists asking about his leaks and a little about his background, there’s nobody really questioning Snowden with any sense of investigation, they’re all possibly too pleased to have such scoops in their hands and seem content to leave it at that.
Poitras stays out of shot, behind the cameras but in the room she’s so physically and metaphorically close to it all, obviously privileged to be at the forefront. Right from the opening, it explains that she’s been detained and questioned as a result of her politically critical films, having to move to other countries, it immediately takes on a very personal relevance for Poitras, the third part of a trilogy as she describes it, one that she has suffered to make. For me the documentary works so much better when it leaves the hotel room to show the wider effects. You can have all the footage you like of a man over 8 days revealing classified documents and surveillance systems, but no matter how much he says it’s ‘terrifying’ and ‘affects everyone’, it’s when we get the events afterwards and surrounding that I feel that hits home far more effectively.
One of the most poignant of those bits was a small piece with the creator of the LavaBit email service that Snowden used, Ladar Levison, taking about how he designed his system to take the service provider out of the communications, then was strong-armed into giving keys to the encryption over to intelligence services, choosing to shut down his service instead. I really felt his pain, that he had no choice but to close down a beloved company rather than compromise its integrity. There’s also an intelligence ‘expert’, William Binney, who left the NSA over their practices and mentions being raided at gunpoint by his employers, I really could’ve listened to more about that.
This story was touched on in one of the final episodes of ‘The Newsroom’, with journalists desperate to get on the same flight as Snowden, but this subject of such interest that it’s up for further adaptation. As with many documentary subjects, feature films aren’t far behind at all, as has been done with Julian Assange (who briefly appaears in this film) and Lance Armstrong in recent years. There was already an attempt at a crowd-funded Edward Snowden movie, starring Kevin Zegers and Michael Shanks, with a view to being distributed by The Pirate Bay, but it didn’t get finished. More likely to see completion, Oliver Stone has bought production rights to upcoming novel ‘Time of the Octopus’ and another non-fiction book about Snowden, which seems to be a project that really fits his political views and film-making very well indeed. If done properly, I expect it will prove to be closer to the ‘chilling thriller’ that this was thought to be, and while I doubt it will ask the searching questions I think still linger unanswered, it could be quite an effective drama.
As for this documentary, I can see why people are championing it with regards to the hard-hitting subject matter , and doing so while it is still timely and in the Zeitgeist. Though I don’t fully agree that it’s the best example of documentary film-making. I prefer something that examines a matter deeply rather than just considering one perspective, stepping back to see the implications, rather than just zooming in on one person as they talk about them.