Why Citizenfour is a Joke—On Us


As you may have heard, Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour—about Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance disclosures—won the Academy Award for best documentary a few days ago. I don’t have the time or patience to delve into an analysis of the film (for starters, I haven’t even seen it), but I do want to take a little time to explain why the film is a joke. And the joke, my friends, is on us.

You see, even though Citizenfour won an Academy Award—in a televised event viewed by millions—it will do absolutely nothing to bring reform to the surveillance state. (Which, let’s not forget, is the whole reason Snowden did what he did). As I wrote last December, we haven’t gotten anywhere in terms of reining in an out-of-control surveillance state, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that real reform is anywhere on the horizon. That explains why I was dumbfounded to read Amy Davidson’s take on the film in The New Yorker, which she closed by noting “outside the [Hong Kong] hotel room, things really did change.” What? What parallel universe is she living in? What, I ask you, has changed post-Snowden? My answer: nothing. NSA surveillance is as widespread and pervasive as ever. Nobody got fired or held accountable for anything. Yes, we’ve “raised awareness” about surveillance, but absolutely nothing has been done about it. So what’s there to celebrate, folks?


According to the for-profit media, however, there’s apparently a lot to celebrate. In the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg notes that a scene in the film “say[s] more about what we lose when we’re stripped of our privacy than even the most explosive document ever could.” Except, again—I don’t need to see the film to know what it’s like to be stripped of my privacy rights. All I need to do is go online and do anything at all, and I already know my privacy rights are being infringed upon (I know this, of course, because state surveillance has not been curtailed whatsoever post-Snowden). And yet Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, absurdly suggests that the Academy-Award win for Citizenfour “couldn’t have pleased the NSA and its apologists.” I mean: who is he kidding? The NSA and their apologists could care less about how many people watch Citizenfour or how many awards the film wins—they know that significant surveillance reform is as likely as a blizzard in the Sahara.

And that’s really all I have to say on the matter. There’s really no point into looking into this film any further, because honestly anyone who cares to know anything about global state surveillance can do so without ever watching this film. And I’m tired of people saying that films like this “raise awareness” about an issue. No, they don’t. The state surveillance disclosures first made headlines back in June of 2013—so if you aren’t aware of what the NSA and GCHQ are up to by now, you likely never will be. Bottom line: just like what went wrong with the BlackLivesMatter protests, we don’t need awareness anymore—we need action. For once.

—Winston A.

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