Why Citizenfour’s Oscar win is a major step forward for the Academy

On 22 February 2015, Jennifer Aniston and David Oyelowo appeared on stage at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre to present the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Once Aniston announced the name of the nominees, which included documentaries on American soldiers in the Vietnam War, Brazilian and French photographers, Congolese conservationists and National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblowers, Oyelowo leaned towards the microphone and announced: “And the Oscar goes to… Citizenfour.” 45 golden statuettes were given that night to winners spread across 20 categories, but this award was unusual for reasons more than one: the makers of an ostensible anti-American documentary were being honoured with one of the most venerated American awards; the documentary’s hero, the NSA whistleblower Edward Joseph Snowden, had not stepped on American soil for more than two years, fearing arrest. The U.S. government could stop Snowden from entering the country, not his film.


Citizenfour, based on Snowden’s revelations, has been directed by Laura Poitras, who was earlier nominated for an Academy Award, in 2007, for her documentary My Country, My Country; but on that Sunday night, when her film’s name filled the auditorium, she didn’t walk towards the podium alone. She was accompanied by Citizenfour’s editor and producer — Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky — and two of her friends, who were unrelated to film production, who had not been to Dolby Theatre before that night. One of them was Glenn Greenwald, an investigative journalist who, along with Poitras, broke the Snowden story for The Guardian, and Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. Greenwald and Mills walking towards the podium exemplified their solidarity towards the Snowden-cause; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t just recognise a well-made documentary — they validated an ideology.


In fact, Poitras (an American citizen) attending the Oscars was surprising, too, given she’s been detained at American airports for years now (she ended up on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) watch list, in 2006, while making My Country, My Country  — a documentary on the lives of Iraqis under the U.S. occupation post-9/11); her camera, laptop, cellphone, credit cards and their receipts and reporting notes have been confiscated plenty of times, and returned to her weeks later, without any explanation. In June 2006, she discovered that her domestic flight tickets were marked with “SSSS”— Secondary Security Screening Selection — which subjected her to additional security checks. During one of her many detentions, airport officials informed Poitras that her “threat rating” was the highest the DHS assigns. Poitras edited Citizenfour in Berlin (where she lives right now) because she feared the FBI officials would seize her documentary’s footage in the U.S. Greenwald, on the other hand, has written about Poitras’ harassment in several publications across the world such as The Guardian, Salon.com, among others.


Which is why it’s not surprising why Snowden chose to reveal his secrets to Greenwald and Poitras. Sometimes you choose the film you want to make; sometimes the film chooses you. In Poitras’ case, it was the latter. In January 2013, when Poitras received an encrypted e-mail from a user named Citizenfour, she didn’t make much of it. She had been making a documentary on surveillance, and was used to receiving cryptic e-mails. But Citizenfour was different from other nameless cyber crusaders. His subsequent e-mail didn’t mince words: “Disturbingly, the NSA has never in its history collected more than it does now. I know the locations of most domestic interception points, and that the largest telecommunication companies in the U.S. are betraying the trust of their customers, which I can prove. We are building the greatest weapons of oppression in the history of man, yet its directors exempt themselves from accountability. The NSA director Keith Alexander lied to Congress, which I can prove. While gathering evidence of the wrongdoing, I focussed on the wronging of the American people, but believe me when I say that the surveillance we live under is the highest privileged compared to how we treat the rest of the world. This I can also prove.” The enormity of this exchange dawned on Poitras: if Citizenfour’s claims were true, her life was going to change pretty soon, pretty fast.


Citizenfour invited Poitras and Greenwald to meet him in Hong Kong, where he was hiding. Poitras filmed Citizenfour spilling NSA’s secrets to Greenwald and another Guardian reporter, Ewen MacAskill, over the course of eight days, which forms the major part of Citizenfour. Had it not been for Poitras and Greenwald, two important voices of dissent against NSA and DHS’s snooping, Citizenfour (Snowden) would have taken time to come out. We needed Poitras (and Greenwald) for a Citizenfour to happen, and we needed this film to happen because we needed to know that there is no privacy in our times. The final revelation in Citizenfour surprises even Snowden — that the NSA is actively tracking the movements of 1.7 million Americans.


The achievements of Citizenfour go beyond the cinematic, and hence its nomination at the 87th Academy Award was a step in the right direction. It sent a clear signal to the filmmakers: “Be fearless, go out there, and make the film you believe in. You worry about your story; we will take care of the rest.” A documentary filmmaker usually addresses challenges such as funding, release and outreach; Poitras’ fundamental concerns were different: she was up against the federal and intelligence agencies of one of the most powerful countries of the world. At some point during its making, Citizenfour must have ceased being just a documentary; its filming was an act of a much-needed rebellion — an ideological tussle, an answer to a paranoid government gone astray, an attempt to change the imbalance between the state and its citizens. And it was imperative that this film reached out to people because they have the right to know what’s being done to their lives.


The Academy Awards, despite suffering from several shortcomings, still remain an important recognition because they ensure visibility to films that risk slipping away unnoticed. Citizenfour needed to win at this year’s Oscars, because its story is not only fascinating, but also important, one that affects both yours and mine. By awarding Citizenfour, the Academy members have, for a change, not played it safe. They have rewarded not only Poitras and her team’s filmmaking, but also their fearless and tireless journalism.


Last Sunday, around 36.6 million people, in more than 200 countries, tuned in to watch the Oscars; however, the number of people who followed the ceremony exceeds the reported figure. This figure, for instance, doesn’t account for those who watched the ceremony online, or who checked the results later. The Academy Awards easily gave Poitras and her team a few hundred thousand viewers, if not more.


Citizenfour premiered at the New York Film Festival on 10 October 2014; since then, the film’s got a theatrical release in the U.S., U.K, Canada, Australia and Germany. The documentary was broadcasted on HBO on 23 February 2015, a day after the 2015 Oscars. Citizenfour’s Oscar win has ensured that its outreach will continue to increase; the copies of the film have already landed on the internet, and it will continue to find new audience through different peer-to-peer file sharing services. Millions, who couldn’t watch this documentary in theatres or on TV, will not only watch it on the internet, but also discuss and debate it. Citizenfour is not going to be forgotten; it’s not going to fade into oblivion. Because nothing dies on the internet. The NSA, of all organisations, should know this only too well.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.


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