NEW YORK » With an uncommon view of history in action, a new documentary captures Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA documents as it unfolded in a Hong Kong hotel room.
Laura Poitras’ highly anticipated documentary "Citizenfour" premiered Friday night at the New York Film Festival. The one-of-a-kind film presents a remarkably intimate portrait of the former Waipahu resident, including his first meetings with the journalists with whom he shared thousands of documents revealing the previously undisclosed collection of Americans’ phone and email records by the National Security Agency.
Initially communicating under the alias "citizenfour," Snowden reached out to Poitras, a hybrid journalist-documentarian, and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. The film shows their very first meeting with Snowden and the days that followed as his revelations made international news.
From the beginning, Snowden is seen as highly aware that such a leak would mean sacrificing his own freedom.
"I already know how this will end for me," he says. "And I accept the risk."
Snowden was charged with three felonies under the Espionage Act: unauthorized communication of national defense information, theft of government property and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. He is currently living in asylum in Russia, where he fled from Hong Kong with the aid of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
Poitras said she showed the film to Snowden two or three weeks ago, during which she shot footage (used in the film) of Snowden and his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, cooking dinner at their Moscow home.
Members of Snowden’s family attended the screening, which was received with an emotional standing ovation. His father, Lonnie Snowden, told the crowd: "The truth is coming and it cannot be stopped."
"Citizenfour," which the Weinstein Co.’s boutique label Radius will release Oct. 24, had been shrouded in mystery. For fear of having her footage seized, Poitras edited the film in Berlin. She and Greenwald returned to the United States earlier this year only after sharing the Pulitzer Prize for public service given to The Washington Post and The Guardian for the NSA revelations.
"Citizenfour" doesn’t aim to be an unbiased documentary about a controversial figure, but rather seeks to depict the stealth buildup of government surveillance in the wake of Sept. 11 and the people who have fought to uncover it.
"This was a film about people who take risks and come forward," Poitras said after the screening.
Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, comes across as calm, intelligent and deliberate. There are glimpses of paranoia. After room service calls Snowden’s hotel room, he unplugs the phone. A fire alarm momentarily prompts his concern. And when he enters passwords on his laptop, Snowden covers himself with a red blanket.
Throughout the process, Snowden speaks about not hiding or "skulking around," instead certain of himself as a whistleblower ready to take sole responsibility for the leak. "Put the target right on my back," he tells the filmmakers.
"So much has been said about Edward Snowden: a lot of it bad, but a lot of it really good," Greenwald said after the film. "I felt like this was really the first time that people could see who he really is in an unmediated way."