I saw a dog riding a skateboard. Rather, I saw a video of a dog riding a skateboard. What’s the big difference? A few weeks ago I saw a mesmerizing movie, Monkey Kingdom, about Macaques in Sri Lanka. Shot as a documentary, it’s edited and narrated like a fiction film with monkeys as actors. I discounted the story, but not the images. Those long-tailed cousins sleeping in trees and dining on maggot larvae were full-price real.
I accepted the underlying premise that photography can represent reality in a trustworthy way. (When in doubt about what to watch on the screen, try nature documentaries — you can always turn down the sound to avoid anthropomorphic excesses.)
Documentaries range greatly in the ways they manipulate material and present themselves as tellers of truth. Many rely heavily on reenactments. We also have fiction films based on true stories that use documentary footage, and digitalization that can make anything imaginary look real on the screen. Do we have the vocabulary needed to note the differences?
A good education in both content and form is available in the subject of Edward Snowden.
In December, an American film-making champion, Oliver Stone, director of JFK, Nixon, and W. will add to his pantheon with the release of Snowden. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Ed Snowden, Zachary Quinto will be Glenn Greenwald, and Melissa Leo will depict documentarian Laura Poitras. Chances are excellent we’ll get a gripping story dramatically told, a thriller, urging the subject from essential but dry to popular and juicy.
Prep for Stone’s Snowden with PBS’s Frontline two-part series by Michael Kirk: United States of Secrets easily accessed on pbs.org. Classic in style, Frontline productions use an unseen adult male narrator who calmly and authoritatively guides viewers, interviewing credible experts. Added effects minimally distract from the goal of being impartial, clear, and informative. Part one of United States of Secrets explains the history of NSA surveillance and whistle-blowing. Part Two details Snowden’s actions and the collusion between the NSA and telecommunications and internet companies. Downing old-school Frontline may feel like taking medicine, but darn, it is good for you and will hold your attention and satisfy curiosity.
Want to go backstage on Ed Snowden’s secret tour from Hawaii to Hong Kong and then Russia? See Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s filmed documentation of Snowden in the first days of his daring decision to reveal NSA’s secret surveillance program in June 2013. Unlike Frontline, her film does not use an invisible narrator. Instead Poitras herself speaks. In a whispery voice she shares the film’s backstory and reads aloud her private emails. Although neither she nor her camera operator openly appear on screen, she lets us overhear her arranging shots for better framing and lighting. We are cut into the deal. Poitras’s direct approach sets up viewers to trust her. Edward Snowden certainly did.
From the outset, Poitras explains how, in a 180 from the usual relationship between filmmaker and subject, Snowden picked her to make a documentary about him. Truly a man of his times (Snowden was born in 1983, the same year as the internet, the year cell phones hit the market) he understands the parlance of our era. He enlists a print journalist to leak the material and shape the story for the mainstream media and a filmmaker to record history in the making.
Snowden, however, says Poitras chose herself for the task by being “selected.” A victim of the secret system he is exposing, Poitras, in Snowden’s view, is the obvious choice to make Citizenfour. Poitras explains: “In 2006 I was placed on a secret watch-list after making a film about the Iraq War. In the following years I was detained and interrogated at the U.S. border dozens of times.” Snowden knew all about her troubles, or so the film suggests with a montage of memos. He tells Poitras her electronic communications are “…in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not.”
In addition to Poitras and Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, print journalist for The Guardian who gets the scoop, also becomes a main character in Citizenfour, a close-up view of a heroic threesome. The film is an important document produced to record the unveiling of many others. Edward Snowden did not “turn himself in” as some called for if he wanted to secure his role as a whistle-blower instead of a traitor, but he did arrange to have his actions documented on film. Interesting stuff. Citizenfour breaks ground in documentary film history.
Snowden tells Greenwald “I am not the story here.” That may be true in the larger frame, but Snowden is the story of Citizenfour. We watch him for 114 minutes do ordinary things like gel his hair. We peep though a window as he prepares dinner with his girlfriend. We hear tremble in his voice as he warns “We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man, yet its directors exempt themselves from accountability.” The film puts a face on the underground paladin and shines a light as he emerges from the shadows. Citizenfour is Snowden sort of turning himself in — on screen, not in person.
When I first learned of NSA’s secret surveillance of U.S. citizens, like many others I dismissively thought, “Well, duh. It is naïve to think any electronic communication is truly private.” I still think that, but watching the films above opened my mind to the depth of deception and our shared vulnerability. We are somewhere we have not ever been before except in dystopian fantasies. Snowden’s actions have led to better safeguards of privacy, and even he writes optimistically in a New York Times op-ed piece (June 5, 2015 A27) but it seems to me since our tax dollars were used to collect our private communications, we ought to get something out of it. Analysts claim the surveillance thwarted nary a terrorist action, so it didn’t keep us safer. Perhaps the government should hire a team of writers to cull through the material and produce some quality entertainment. How about an internet channel devoted to the project?
Poitras calls Citizenfour her third film in a trilogy about “America post-9/11.” Interestingly, none of the films – all worth watching– are set in the United States. All three are portraits of men of action with details that give viewers private tours into complex worlds. The first, My Country, My Country (2006) follows an Iraqi doctor who runs for office in Iraq’s first elections. It’s the film that put Poitras on the NSA watchlist. The Oath (2010), set in Yemen and Guantanamo, tells an amazing story. Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard candidly speaks about his experiences getting into and out of al-Qaeda and his guilt over the imprisonment of another whose case goes to the Supreme Court. It’s fascinating to see the surroundings, hear the stories, and watch the cat and mouse game that goes on between interviewee and interviewer. Put The Oath in your queue.
And if you look out your window and see a dog riding a skateboard, be sure to film it.