CitizenFour, Dystopian Allegory Meets The Fourth Wall In Digital Age

Animal Farm, 1984 & Lord of the Flies are all allegorical dystopian novels - works of fiction that subsequently made it to the big screen. But can documentaries use the dystopian allegorical genre as well? In the case of Laura Poitras’ recently released documentary about Edward Snowden, titled, ‘CitizenFour,’ this seems to be the case.

Double Indemity

According to the interdisciplinary scholar and author James Clifford, he defines allegory as a “continuous double structure” in literature. It’s a genre that allows a linear plot line to maintain its authenticity while serving as a “medium for a lesson of general significance” to be conveyed on a second level.

Director Laura PoitrasDirector Laura PoitrasTo call a documentary allegorical is to highlight it’s capacity to mediate. In the case of CitizenFour, the documentary's mediation is not only between the subject and the camera, it’s between the subject and the audience. While initially identifying himself as "CitizenFour" when first introduced to Poitras and her collaborator journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden withheld his true identity, until he knew he could fully trust the filmmakers.

Facing the Fourth Wall

When he dropped the pseudonym and provided documents alleging widespread abuses of power perpetrated by the U.S. National Security Administration, the subsequent film that resulted is a first-hand unprecedented fly-on-the-wall account of one of the most groundbreaking government breaches in recent history. From CitizenFour, to the addressing the Fourth Wall (audience) head-on, Snowden and these filmmakers are on point in their depiction of one citizen taking a stand against his government. His blowing the whistle becomes totally transparent, stripped of any pretense.

NY Times correspondent, A.O. Scott describes the documentary as an “intelligent contribution to the flourishing genre of dystopian allegory,” that spotlights Snowden as “an authorized portrait, made at its subject’s invitation.”

When asked why Snowden chose Poitras, he replied, “she had selected herself, based on her previous work as a journalist and filmmaker, including a short documentary about William Binney, an N.S.A. whistle-blower who also appears in “Citizenfour.”

“It’s a tense and frightening thriller that blends the brisk globe-trotting of the “Bourne” movies with the spooky, atmospheric effects of a Japanese horror film. And it is also a primal political fable for the digital age, a real-time tableau of the confrontation between the individual and the state.” adds Scott.

Snowden Effect

For those that think Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s surveillance tactics have gone for naught, this movie will assist in turning that debate 180 degrees for even the most conservative. Even prior to the October 24th debut of the documentary, President Obama called for increased transparency and announced future restrictions on the use of acquired data.

Dina PoKemper writing for Foreign Policy in Focus states, “there will be no safe haven if privacy is seen as a strictly domestic issue, and legal doctrine stays stuck in pre-digital time.”

To that end, it may help if the Leader of the Free World allowed the man who started the debate - Edward Snowden - to come home without fear of a lifetime prison sentence. "After all," PoKemper points out, “one day they both may be Nobel Laureates.”

Your thoughts readers? Is the debate on privacy in the digital age evolving to the point where resolutions will manifest themselves? And will this movie help to elevate the argument so that the U.S. government will become a model for other free nations to emulate?

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