Oscars 2015: The importance of Citizenfour’s Best Documentary win

Last night, the 87th Academy Awards took place in Hollywood, Los Angeles, but as the spotlight focused on movie leads and red carpet glamour, the high-profile star of one of this year’s winning films was noticeably absent.

Citizenfour, which picked up the Best Documentary Oscar may not have made major waves at the Box Office, but its message is nonetheless important. The win marks the end of a remarkable journey for the film, but the story of its protagonist’s Edward Snowden remains ongoing.

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The NSA whistleblower, whose revelations about government surveillance programmes are the focus of Citizenfour, remains in asylum in Russia where his two-year exile is likely to continue indefinitely.

Another of the film’s stars, the hacker and political activist Jacob Appelbaum, was also unable to attend the ceremony last night for fear of arrest. The US citizen, who has worked with Snowden and WikiLeaks, took to Twitter to express his dismay at being unable to join the film’s cast and crew at the ceremony.

“I wish I could be with Laura, Trevor and Glenn at the Oscars,” he wrote. “The never ending US Govt harassment of @wikileaks is personally soul crushing.”

The film itself, and indeed its director Laura Poitras, have faced some significant hurdles prior to the Oscar win. Poitras, whose previous films have focused on the Iraq war and post-9/11 America, has been routinely stopped and detained by security services when entering the United States stretching back as far as 2006.

Poitras even felt the need to carry out Citizenfour’s editing in Berlin, Germany, as she believed that the content would not be secure in the United States. All of the film’s footage was transported on encrypted hard drives, and Poitras’ computer was separated from the Internet using an air gap. In fact, the director’s security skills were deemed “vital” to the creation of the film.

The film’s credits even list a number of free software packages like Tor that helped in its creation. Ultimately, Citizenfour is a film indebted to technology, but one that rails against its improper use.

Since its release in October last year, Citizenfour has received widespread critical acclaim and numerous awards from the likes of BAFTA and the Directors Guild of America.

"Citizenfour must have been a maddening documentary to film. Its subject is pervasive global surveillance, an enveloping digital act that spreads without visibility, so its scenes unfold in courtrooms, hearing chambers and hotels,” wrote Guardian reviewer Spencer Ackerman. “Yet the virtuosity of Laura Poitras, its director and architect, makes its 114 minutes crackle with the nervous energy of revelation."

While the Oscar’s decision to honour such controversial subject matter is praiseworthy, it is not without precedent. Snowden himself has largely been lauded since the leaked information about the NSA and its PRISM surveillance programme and upheld as a hero, but that is not how the US government views him.

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Last night, during her acceptance speech, Laura Poitras thanked Edward Snowden for his “courage,” and rightly so. It is because of the bravery of Snowden and other whistleblowers like him, that we are able to check the powers that be and continue making important pieces of cinema like Citizenfour.