Faced with an extraordinary story, Oscar winning Doc maker Laura Poitras hatched an even bolder plan. The story’s contents were indeed explosive, but its main character was reluctant to be filmed. Stop there and it could have made an 8-minute segment on a television show — 60 minutes.
But Poitras did not relent, resynthesising her film’s style — for the silver screen.
I make the assumption she must have pondered its visual schema, because what she captures in Snowdon’s hotel room screams of what cineists refer to as drama continuity sequences, rather than the thin extempores you often find in television docs.
And to create continuity you need to preplan. Not one camera, but sometimes two, three, even a dozen as anyone on a movie set will tell you. The scene needs blocking; figuring where best to situate the camera and characters to maximise effects. Except too, Poitras has to play around the characters.
As was said of the great Russian avant-garde filmmaker, Vertov, he found cinema in every day events. His Man with a Movie Camera is an exemplar of this philosophy. Poitras is finding cinema in a visually stultifying mise-en-scènes.
Citizen Four — the Movie
I’m in a small theatre in the centre of London; so small I could risk sitting in the front seat without being prostrate watching the screen. 7.30 p.m. I count five people around me…Perfect.
Citizen Four opens with settings found in Russell Crowe’s 2000 flick Proof of life — we’re in the middle of a condo tucked somewhere in vegetation growth, reachable only by Lonely Planet traveller-types. Glenn Greenwald, is on his PC; his dog provides more mise-en-scène.
As the drama unfolds, I start to play spot the cinema trope. In various interviews Poitras has spoken about the mix of journalism and cinema that she brought to CitizenFour.
While the film’s literary message could quite easily subdue its visual cues; I too get sucked into Snowdon’s powerful testimony, I am also consciously trying to anticipate Poitras’ intentions.
There they are, various plays in the film that do indeed shape our reception to this documentary occupying that grey zone between cinematic tropes refined in fictional cinema and journalism.
Shots of suburbia at, is it William Binney’s home? The data code that flashes up; the dashes that flick longitudinally on the screen — the real effect of a car travelling under a tunnel. Then there’s Poitras hauntingly impassioned voice over, which if she gives up filmmaking guarantees her a secondary career as HAL 900s female gender.
It is, I’m certain, what Laura Rascaroli in her book on The Personal Camera, refers to as personal cinema. Poitras is a character in her film, though not seen wrestling with a problem. Who is this character referring to; whose voice is this? It creates a tension that isn’t immediately resolved within the clarity of journalism’s philosophy to reductively explain.
To paraphrase Tarantino, the viewer is left to chase the film- the source of its intrigue and continual gaze from the audience.
In 2001, seated at a conference at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International affairs), I find myself in the midst of the intelligence community. In the US, the drive is on to recruit young people from university.
I’m fascinated by the story. James Woolsey, Director of the CIA between 1993 and 1995, states these recruits could earn way more in the private sector, and when they join us, it can’t be for the glory, because they can’t tell anyone.
After Woolsey finishes speaking, I approach him.
The conversation ends with, when you’re in Washington… yes drop by for an interview. I do. I tell the controller of BBC 3 Stuart Murphy about the idea. CIA-Y generation. He likes it. But I don’t quite yet, I realise in hindsight, have the visual philosophy, that I now so readily see in Poitras’ film.
On the other hand, Murphy didn’t know that, so he had other reasons not to take that big bite.
In Poitras’ film the visual sequencing of shot-reverse-shot patterns cinema’s use of multiple cameras. In one shot Snowden talks and then a reaction is picked up — dramatic sequences of shot continuity personified. Listen carefully too and a non-diegetic low drone suffuses the narrative, inducing a sense of concern subconsciously within the film.
Seeing Steven Soderbergh’s credit at the end, well, why am I not surprised.
What’s the fuss then from watching this? We already know the breakthrough, but do we? Poitras fulfils a basic tenant of cinema — to craft a suitable narrative, to make the film memorable, to use art to further meaning and understanding. To paraphrase Christian Metz, you remember the movies, even ones not well made.
But reading the report of Sarah Bartlett, Dean, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I’m struck by this, its candour. She says:
I still struggle to understand how encouraging a professionally oriented school to pursue a more theoretical, academic program would be helpful at a time when our profession is undergoing such sweeping, real-time transformation
In journalistic terms, my interpretation is that our pursuit of a story dressed in the now seeming banal tropes of analogue television’s ageing form with a comb over, is concerning.
Worrying enough to spend six years investigating this. How do we create and leave a lasting impression? How do we mix unfolding evidence in digital theory with artistic practice? Cinema scholar Richard Porton calls this collapsing of boundaries, ‘modernist realism’. Journalism schools tend not to be built for that.
When I won my Knight Batten Award for first place a decade ago, the premise then was towards the artistic and cinematic. In academia that draws on discursive practices: art, paintings, music, perfomance.
Citizen Four’s success at the Oscars, signals something else other than creating a ‘good film’. I wish it would be an explicit call to redefine the form of moving image making I know so well in videojournalism. Not all stories will have the molecular density of Snowden’s revelations, but cinematic entropy has the effect, when mastered, of serving all stories.
Understanding how cinema plays with factual is the challenge, worth entertaining; quite literally.
Now for a return to that 2001 idea, which for now I’m calling Isomers — which I’m completing for a preview showing at Apple
David Dunkley Gyimah is a Knight Batten Winner and International award winning videojournalist. His PhD examines television of the future. He presents at Apple Store. London in March. More from his website www.viewmagazine.tv and twitter @viewmagazine