Citizenfour interrogates the ethics of surveillance

By Samantha Jones

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) 2015 Film Fundraiser took over Cinema Nova Carlton on 10 February 2015 with a sold-out advanced screening of the award-winning documentary, Citizenfour, detailing the real-life story of Edward Snowden whistleblowing on government surveillance.

Ella McNeill, HRAFF Director & CEO, opened the event and invited Dr Patrick Emerton, Senior Lecturer in the Monash Faculty of Law and Associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, to address how surveillance can be understood from an Australian context. Dr Emerton spoke of the Australian constitution and the value of democracy.

“The constitution set up the structure in which the government ultimately is the servant of the people, not our master”, Dr Emerton said.

“Widespread covert surveillance by government agencies of his people upends this proper relationship. Upends the relationship between citizenry and government. And that’s because surveillance rests upon a fundamentally anti-democratic premise.”

Dr Emerton asked when viewing the movie to keep in mind “the deep and potentially damaging effects that these increased surveillance may be having upon our political community, our political values and thereby our community more generally”.

Citizenfour is the third part of a trilogy about post-9/11 America directed by Academy Award-winning American documentary film director Laura Poitras. It follows investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, Guardian intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill and Poitras on their journey with Edward Snowden to expose the US government’s indiscriminate and sweeping surveillance of foreign nationals and US citizens.

Adopting a cinéma vérité style, the documentary provides an insightful and unbiased glimpse into the Snowden affair and the aftermath of the revelations through an eight-day interview in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Compiled around grabs of footage from key moments pivotal to understanding the context around Snowden’s whistleblowing and the people you would expect to see talk about the subject  Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum and William Binney  Citizenfour is a vertigo-inducing real-life thriller.

Heavy jargon aside, the documentary highlights how every phone call we make, email we send, keyword we search, electronic payment we make and linkable app we use on our smart phone is able to be recorded, collected and used to understand where we go, what we do, who we speak to and when. Snowden’s statement, “not my issues; they’re everyone’s issues”, encapsulates the issue perfectly.

It is easy to see why Poitras won the 2014 Directors Guild of America Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary Award for Citizenfour and Best Documentary at the Oscars  the documentary is emotionally and visually stunning.

Juxtaposed between the grainy footage and interview scenes are high definition, symmetrical imagery of landscapes and architecture, creating a peaceful emptiness and calm in the vulnerability the film exposes  reminding me at times of a Wes Anderson film. Heightened further by eerie drone noises and the humanisation of Snowden, the unnaturalness of what is unfolding on the screen comes across as hauntingly deep.

Ultimately, the documentary demonstrates the personal sacrifice made and the price paid for protecting civil liberties. Along with providing an intimate view of how Snowden leaked the documents and what was at risk, Citizenfour also provides the clear message that surveillance is something we should all be aware of.

Like Dr Emerton said in the pre-screening address, surveillance is a reality in Australia and while the government articulates the virtues of using it, it ultimately violates the values of democracy. Citizenfour brings forth interesting discussions on surveillance and privacy.

HRAFF programs inspiring and engaging films as well as works of art exploring human rights issues from around the world. HRAFF 2015 exhibits in Melbourne on 7–21 May 2015 before touring the country for three weeks.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.