Laura Poitras, director of CitizenFour, is a practitioner of cinéma vérité. She describes this filming method as being “in the moment when things are happening, as things are unfolding, and you document them. […] when you’re in the moment, all that kind of uncertainty exists, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And so, that’s what you sort of feel as the narrative, dramatic pull.” [1]

In her previous films, Poitras’ role was merely to document. Poitras had been working on a trilogy focusing on the aftermath of 9/11 (which includes CitizenFour), but her initial conceptualization of their plots was vague. Even the films’ stories could change during filming. For example, Poitras wanted her second film of the trilogy, The Oath, to focus on Guantánamo, and thought that its story would be about an innocent prisoner. The prominent subject of the film was a bodyguard to Osama Bin Laden, whose brother-in-law is being held in Guantanamo after being recruited into Al-Qaeda by him.

But for CitizenFour, Poitras has tightened its plot to firmly state that the government is eroding our right to privacy. This change in her approach to filming was not only due to her direct involvement in the release of NSA documents in June 2013, but due to her own experience with having her right to privacy eroded. After filming her second film of her 9/11 trilogy, My Country, My Country, Poitras was placed on a Department of Homeland Security watchlist. From the 2006 to 2012, Poitras had been detained by DHS agents “virtually every time” she had left and re-entered the United States [2]. As a result, she has taken extreme precautions, such as traveling without electronic devices and editing her films not at her home but in Berlin [3], to avoid the U.S. government’s intrusion. In fact, her extensive use of encryption as a result of the detainments was one of the reasons why Edward Snowden, the prominent figure in CitizenFour decided to contact her [4].

With her stake in the film’s events, it can be said that CitizenFour does not strictly follow the conventions of cinéma vérité approach. For the film, Poitras has filmed segments in addition to her correspondence with Snowden; their subjects include William Binney, another NSA whistleblower, court cases regarding the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance, news coverage of the NSA documents disclosure, and a meeting between Snowden’s lawyers. Many of these segments are negative toward the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance (e.g. Binney blew the whistle in response to NSA surveillance, O Globo publishes the headline “The US Spied on Millions of Brazilian Emails and Phone Calls”). The few segments on the U.S. government’s response to the NSA documents disclosures weakly defend their actions (e.g. a member of the Department of Defense argues that the Ninth Circuit should not hear a case regarding the NSA tapping into AT&T’s records.

It is clear that the documentary does not take a neutral stance towards domestic surveillance and argues against it. And although the third film of her 9/11 trilogy was initially vague in terms of plot, perhaps Poitras always meant to film it to argue against domestic surveillance. After the invasion of Iraq, Poitras thought to herself, “We always wonder how countries can veer off course. How do people let it happen, how do people sit by during this slipping of boundaries?”


  1. No Author, “Citizenfour: Inside Story of NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Captured in New Film by Laura Poitras” (Democracy Now, 2014) (Accessed 04/19/2017)
  2. Glenn Greenwald, “U.S. filmmaker repeatedly detained at border” (Salon, 2012) (Accessed 04/19/2017)
  3. George Packer, “The Holder of Secrets” (The New Yorker, 2014) (Accessed 04/20/2017)
  4. “Citizenfour” (HBO Films, 2014)
  5. Peter Maass, “How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets” (The New York Times, 2013)