Challenging the autonomy of the image in Citizenfour

Image from NY Times

Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour is a surprisingly simple film. With a run time just shy of two hours, it focuses on the circumstances surrounding Edward Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle on the American National Security Agency. The story is complicated, but also, it’s not. Poitras provides enough context even for audiences who may not be familiar with the NSA’s history, but it is clear from the outset that her focus is on Snowden. Given the sensitive nature of their discussions and later the difficulty they have meeting in person, much of the film focuses on the online conversations that happen between Poitras, Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, a journalist hand-picked by Snowden to write the exposé on the NSA. A film so focused on the written language could easily become labourious for the viewer, but Citizenfour never feels like hard work. Poitras masterfully uses text to raise questions about communication and surveillance, while also making a film that doesn’t rely upon the visual image to tell its story.

Citizenfour uses intertitles to communicate many of the events that occur in the film. This includes Snowden’s initial communications with Poitras; information about the NSA’s history; information that contextualizes Snowden’s whistle-blowing and perhaps most importantly, the communication between Poitras, Snowden and Greenwald following the exposure of the NSA’s unlawful surveillance. As the film progresses, it becomes too risky for the three to meet in person and so much of their communications happen via encrypted email (and what looks to be a text-based messaging service). The film is split into three acts: the initial contact with Snowden, the hotel room footage, and the events post-Snowden revelations. All three acts are considerably different from one another (Poitras states that this is because she had started filming about NSA surveillance before Snowden contacted her, and once he had contacted her the film took a different direction) and and are sutured together through the ‘black screen’ and its expository intertitles, which in conjunction with one another, create “a system of narrative integration”, to quote to André Gaudreault and Timothy Barnard. By this definition, intertitles are a component of editing that aids the formation of meaning.

Poitras says that the hotel footage is the heart of the work, but if the film was to be stripped back to nothing but footage it is unlikely that these hotel scenes would carry such significance. The tension in the hotel scenes is predicated by expository intertitles, which are also necessary given the lack of Poitras as an interrogative figure, or even a speaking character, in the film. Due to the absence of Poitras as an on-screen presence, the use of on-screen text is absolutely crucial to the contextualization of the scenes it prefaces/postfaces. However, it also performs another function: it allows the audience to overcome the limitations that the protagonists of the film face, geographical and otherwise, by creating a new space in the film within which the story can be told – one free of any visual images. Much of the middle act takes place in Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong, and to call these scenes tense and claustrophobic is something of an understatement. The anxiety obviously felt by Snowden is further advanced by the fact that Poitras shoots so much of these long scenes in such a small space – we never see beyond the interior of the hotel. Intertitles give the audience information to aid our understanding of exactly what is happening outside of the hotel room as the media learns of Snowden’s revelations, giving even more perspective to the events unfolding in the film. Without this on-screen text, the visual storytelling wouldn’t suffice in providing a fully cohesive or engaging narrative.

Lisa Parks claims that Poitras uses principles of cinéma vérité to “open up spaces, characters, and relationships”. In the case of Citizenfour, the use of on-screen text does this just as effectively, if not more efficiently, by creating a liminal space in which much of the narrative unfolds free from the distraction of the visual image. The on-screen text goes beyond a means of transmitting information and becomes an image itself – a visual language in that the words are materially present on the screen in a way that enables engagement with the screen as both “a surface as well as a window”. In Citizenfour we read text on screen – the surface; but our comprehension of what we are reading on-screen opens a new space – the window – that allows us to fully understand and engage with the story. Foucault tells us that text is either ruled by the image or the image is ruled by text,  but in the case of Citizenfour, the text augments the image by giving it meaning and context.  The visual storytelling alone would struggle to provide a comprehensive story, especially given the difficulties that the three main protagonists have in regards to meeting in person and being able to capture footage without the risk of confiscation or interception. The lack of any visual accompaniments to the text is important because, according to Tessa Dwyer, text on screen is regarded as an authoritative way of delivering information. The delivery of such vital information through the use of on-screen text versus modes such as voice-overs (which briefly bookend the film) or interviews not only implicitly gives the information authority and helps the audience understand the magnitude of the events depicted in the film, but also bolsters a key theme of the film: the very nature of communication.

As aforementioned, there is little visual distraction in Citizenfour. When we are not watching/reading text on screen, we are listening to dialogue, whether it be diegetic dialogue or a voice over. From the inception of the film it becomes clear that Poitras is faced with a paradox: she has been tasked with making a film about a subject who may not be able to be physically present in the film due to the nature of the story he wants to tell. In an interview for Filmmaker Magazine, Poitras notes that it was safer if she, Snowden and Greenwald were in different places during the filming because otherwise the information they needed would be jeopardised. What enables the relationship between them is textual communication – so it is only natural that expository intertitles would be the method by which their relationship is also represented on-screen. Citzenfour is not a film of images but a film of words.

Poitras herself is largely represented in the film by on-screen text. While we hear her voice in a few scenes, we do not catch a glimpse of her. Poitras explains her physical absence in the film by saying that she felt the camera was intrusive”. The camera may be intrusive, especially in a film such as Citizenfour where privacy is paramount, but this isn’t the case with on-screen text; no-one is the subject of the camera’s gaze. Poitras’ use of on-screen text to convey much of the films meaning is also fitting given the fact that she considers herself a visual journalist, and considering that spectators read films as much as they see and hear them.  Poitras is successful in creating a dynamic work of “screen writing”, to use Scott MacDonald’s term, in which words are felt and experienced via the screen. Through the use of on-screen text, words form their own visual entity, another character of the film; one that is partly Poitras’ on-screen identity, but also an entity entirely of their own. This is most obvious when we examine the way Poitras visually represents the process of encryption on screen.

Snowden asks that Poitras encrypt all communications they have, a process she is familiar with given the face that Poitras had run into issues with the NSA as a result of the subject matter of her earlier films.  We see what encryption looks like on screen – digits, letters and symbols that make no sense to the viewer. This is language in its rawest form, but despite its rudimentary appearance we know it carries powerful significance in its ability to disguise the real intent behind their correspondence. Poitras uses a different font face to set these online communications apart from the other on-screen text that announces events, breakthroughs and other occurrences in the film, indicating their difference. The film screen becomes what Lev Manovich terms a “dynamic screen”; this small difference of font indicates there is merging of two screens. The integration of the computer screen into the film screen allows Poitras to create a screen that commands your complete attention – the screen of film, while manipulating traits common to the computer screen (on screen ‘typed’ text, monospace font)  that orient the viewer to expect data we would typically associate with a computer or data-processing device.

Poitras says that the existence of Citizenfour was entirely dependent on their use of and reliance upon encryption so it is logical that this be represented in the film. As Lisa Parks makes note, encryption and the process of encrypting information actually becomes an integral part of the films production, and is “is woven into its contents and form”. The encryption we see on screen greatly alters our perception of on-screen text: whether or not we understand how to encrypt something, what is common knowledge is why something might be encrypted. We recognise that what is being relayed is sensitive data that must be hidden from view just to ensure that the information can later be revealed – much like the narrative unfolding of a film. The process of visually representing encryption imparts great significance upon the communications between Snowden and herself. While we know that on-screen text typically connotes authority, Poitras’ visual representations of encryption take it a step further and demonstrates that what is being communicated has a greater level of integrity – if one has gone to such lengths as to encrypt their communications, something significant must be at stake. There is reason to question whether the use of visual image would be able to represent the gravity of what is being communicated between Snowden and Poitras as well as accurately convey the extreme risk that was being taken by both of them. Poitras has found an incredibly effective way of representing significance of language on screen – by using the written word in its most abstract form as a visual signifier.

In an interview with Scott Macauley, Poitras reveals she had an enormous amount of footage that could have been used in the film. Deciding what should stay on the cutting room floor of a documentary film is not an enviable job, but perhaps even more difficult is determining which methods of presenting information would most honestly relay its significance. And the primary method she opted for was the use of on-screen text. This integration of language and text into the fabric of Citizenfour makes it clear that Poitras is astutely aware of the significance that language has to the story she is telling. Perhaps Poitras is aware that the inclusion of so much on-screen text was the most faithful way to tell Snowden’s story, or perhaps she believed that the visual image would not suffice; that it would be an unreliable means of communicating something so deeply concerned with the transmission of language. As Shochat and Stam remark, language is inherently political. By using on-screen text to tell Snowden’s story and blow the whistle on US surveillance of phone and internet records, Poitras is able to get to the very heart of the issue objectively, immediately and authoritatively. However, she also asserts that on-screen text is a powerful narrative tool that can create new dimensions within a film, and one that does not need traditional visual imagery to have clout.

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