“Citizenfour” enjoyed a strong box office debut this weekend along with some very good reviews. The reaction from the subject of the movie, Edward Snowden, was of reluctance at being at the center of a story that needed to be told.
Director Laura Poitras, in an interview with Ted Johnson for Variety‘s SiriusXM show “PopPolitics,” said when she traveled to Moscow with a near-finished copy of the documentary, Snowden took a lot of notes.
“He’s a very technical person, so I think he is very aware that every frame is going to be scrutinized,” Poitras said. “He took down a lot of notes to say, like, if we revealed a bit of cipher text, what could be decrypted, what could be revealed, and so there was a lot of notes about those kinds of things.”
The movie at times has the atmosphere of a political thriller, particularly as Snowden is ensconced in a Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras’ cameras focused on his reaction as the world media reacted to the leak of classified information showing the extent of U.S. government eavesdropping on citizens.
She added, “He still doesn’t necessarily want to be the story, and I understand that as well, but I think he also feels it is important that people understand what happened in the hotel room, and that, I think in the end, he thinks is a good thing.”
Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, who has been living with him in Moscow, had a more difficult time watching the documentary, as she was not with him at the time or aware of what he was doing, but was visited by government authorities at her home, Poitras said.
“Citizenfour” tells how Poitras first encountered Snowden via an anonymous e-mail, explaining a plan to leak the information. She says that she first feared that it was some kind of effort at “entrapment,” but “by the third e-mail I thought this could be serious.”
Poitras said that she was somewhat surprised when, in response to a question about why she was chosen by Snowden, he answered by e-mail, “You chose yourself.” She had already been working on a project about surveillance, and had made several films, including the Oscar nominated Iraq documentary “My Country, My Country,” that delved into the war on terror and the aftermath of 9/11.
“I said, ‘Wait, are you looking at my file? Because that is kind of creepy if I am talking to someone who has access to my classified file,'” she recalled. “But he assured me he didn’t but had read about how I had been repeatedly stopped at the U.S. border.”
Poitras and Snowden set up a meeting. But she says that she did feel a sense of danger and risk as she flew from Berlin, where she lives, to New York and then to Hong Kong, where they were to meet in a hotel restaurant.
“I was very conscious of the fact that we were going to anger some very powerful people and that there were a lot of risks going in to this,” she says. Snowden “chose to really unravel his life” by leaking the information, but by then the U.S. government had sought out not just whistleblowers but the media. “There’s a clear sense the government is targeting the whistleblowers but it’s also targeting the journalists they speak to,” she says.
As the information was revealed and Snowden came forward, Poitras found herself as part of the story. She says it has been “a little bit uncomfortable having so many people narrate my experience, and oftentimes narrate my experience without talking to me.” But just as she had to explain to Snowden that he would be a big part of the story of the leaks, she says she has to accept that in her own case as well.
As debate raged in the United States over whether Snowden was a whistleblower or a traitor, he went to Russia, where he has been given temporary asylum.
Poitras, though, suggests that if Snowden were to return to the U.S. to face the consequences there, he would face an unfair justice system.
With “the whistleblower laws right now, the Espionage Act, there’s no defense basically,” she says. “There is n0 fair trial to be had because of how the statute is written.”
Listen to the complete interview on the latest edition of PopPolitics on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel, airing Thursdays at 11 a.m. PT and on-demand.