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The Last Citizen

On Edward Snowden and on Laura Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour, about the man who is already passing from personhood into myth.

Edward Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills in Citizenfour

Edward Snowden, friend to some and foe to many, has barely begun his work of revelation and he is already passing from personhood into myth (to be sure a third-millennial myth in which heroes are unassuming and youthful, but not, nonetheless, any less heroic). Snowden (even the name has a mythical image about it: one imagines an exile living in solitude in a snowed-in den on the tundra), the digerati Skywalker, the rebellious SysAdmin, the concerned citizen boldly acting against the all-encompassing Evil Empire (its leaders and generals playing their imperial roles to a T, even going so far as to cackle with glee when threatening to crush the traitors in the name of security). And like all true rebels, there is something of a believer in him, the basis of a faith arising perhaps from a ruination of what was once the digital dream’s virginal potential of absolute liberty: “I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there was never anything like it in the history of the world.” Until it was, like all tools of power and control, overtaken by the powers of state and capital that be.

His reformist’s plea to awareness is one that, if it lacks its counterpart’s the revolutionary’s plea to action, is no less a clarion call. For as he reveals the functioning of apparatus through obscure near-alchemic Orgcharts crammed with mystifying spy-talk and tech-lingo, he points out that “we are building the greatest apparatus for oppression in the history of man.”

If anything, Edward Snowden has something of Jeremiac about him—he has come to warn against our willful breaches against the covenant of democracy, breaches which require that a prophetic voice caution of us of the impending doom lest we not repent. Skilled Internet acolyte of the digital age that he is, his privileged access (both as someone with a deep talent of the architecture of code, as well as someone who has had literal ‘privileged access’) affords him a perspective into a potentially dark future, and one from which he is granted the privilege of fearful foresight.

If one of the prophet’s classical functions is to threaten and warn of doom, a second is to grant a chance for salvation through repentance. Cease to worship the Baals, and salvation can be near. Yet, what are the nation’s sins that are bringing their existence to the brink of doom and relinquishment of freedom? In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ documentation of the breaking of the NSA leaks, as in Snowden’s revelations, that blank is left void; the context lacks, and the prophet has not yet accused the nation of its sins so that it may repent – its hubris and relentless strive for comfort and power at the expense the universe.

Yet, none of this is present in the Snowden document Citizenfour, an impressive act of investigative journalism and personal sacrifice so concentrated on the filmed event that it cannot become a filmic one. Perhaps it is the very principle of investigative journalism—that of a single real truth to be uncovered—which is anathema to the necessary vagaries of the art of cinema. As Snowden understood from the start, the Event cannot exist without the Camera—the Event calls the Camera to itself to document, to prove—here, to discover the concealed flow of data invisible to our eyes, although visible to those of the initiate. And in this film, which is not one, as the event becomes Event through its documentation, one begins to wonder: When the documentation is the event itself, where is the film?

For every step Citizenfour takes closer towards investigative journalism is one step further away from cinema. And hence the aesthetic choices are taken to bolster this document’s real: the landscapes of Brazil or Berlin, the glory aerial shots of Hong Kong and New York, the integration of judicial documents all make an argument of the real in order to magnify the Event’s impact. Literal reproductions of CNN and other news feeds are there to give credence to the event’s significance. Authorities and informational texts pop up on the screen at intervals, ignoring, as Godard never would have, both their inherent qualities as text and as film, and only insisting on their claim to the real (Saussure is rolling in his grave). Yet, there is a blind spot in  all this critique—that a document which presents things “as they are” never calls into question its own digitality (and after this film, one has even less of a doubt—infinitely malleable and absolutely insecure digitality).

The film, albeit an essential document of our times, is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to renew the aesthetics, a necessary act for this document to transform itself from a recording of the political event into an articulate and innovative political aesthetic. Rather, Citizenfour relies on the traditional (American) conventions of the narrative of revelation (the  journalistic work at Watergate and retold in All the President’s Men comes to mind) and in so doing, the images renounce their inherent potential in order to become information. Every edit, a chance for the repudiation of the real, an opportunity for a political or aesthetic innovation, is here used instead to reproduce that real. Yet, as the cinema of the late fifties and sixties has taught us, the effectiveness even of that documentation to resist its assimilation is contingent upon the creation of an anomalous aesthetic - resistance takes place formally, because content is too easily absorbed.

No one has understood better than the cineastes of those times that politics has no place in cinema because cinema is politics. And by taking the orthodox approach, Citizenfour prepares the Snowden event for assimilation into the media machine. Snowden is certainly articulate, thoughtful and courageous, as is this documentation of his disclosures, but the true significance of the event arises from its radicality, one that has yet to be reproduced filmically.

But maybe the film is true to form. Although Snowden’s actions are radical, they are not revolutionary. His rhetoric’s fundamental quality is that of reform, and like every reformist his action is one which functions within the system in which he believes. And perhaps here is where this document could have become film—by attaching the event to the historical, philosophical, spiritual concerns of our time thus placing it within the greater context of our existence. This critical context might then throw another regard upon this system we have all contributed to create, the one which works to secure the guarantee of our comfort and security in exchange for the coin of our liberty.

The value of recording this historical political event-in-the-making is doubtless, (akin to, say, the documentation of the Eichmann trial or the text of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses) but artistically it is still but potential, a text to subsequently be commented on, interpreted, re-edited, manipulated. For now, it is a string of gestures and words, like collected data which precludes understanding rather than granting it.

Yet, perhaps the film ends with the tiniest hint towards an aesthetic possibility. The film’s final scene is an intimate one, in which we see Ed Snowden and his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills prepare a meal on the balcony of what we only assume to be their dacha in what we can only assume to be somewhere in Russia. And this single decontexulaized and anomalous image hints at the possibility of a materiality beyond the scope of virtuality, and one can hope, beyond the scope of oversight.

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