The rise of the surveillance state has been a fertile area for films in recent years, following Wikileaks revelations and, more potently, the cache of information provided by Edward Snowden. This was most memorably covered in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, and many of the crew for that (including Poitras as producer) are involved with this documentary looking back at an important historical precedent. Of course, as we’ve seen in plenty of paranoid thrillers of that era, the 1970s — riven particularly by opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam — was another great time for questioning the liberties taken by the government, and the surveillance that was done back then was similar in certain aspects to intelligence programmes relaunched after 9/11. Perhaps the one with the most lasting fame was COINTELPRO (for Counter-Intelligence Programme), involving the systematic undermining of largely political targets by the FBI in ways that were entirely illegal. As 1971 makes clear, the revelation of this programme was largely due to the break-in to a small FBI office by a group of anti-war protestors in 1971, who for the first time appear on camera to tell their story. What’s affecting about it is that all of those involved are now in their 60s, with respectable jobs and families, who were acting out of disgust at the ways the US government was operating in the 1970s. In these reflective interviews, some of the participants waver in their youthful beliefs, but one couple at the centre of the break-in were very conscious of putting their whole family in jeopardy, and this comes to be the emotional core of the film in a way. At the same time, all the information which they revealed about the FBI’s operations of the time (still an organisation run by the feared J. Edgar Hoover) remains fascinating as an archival glimpse into fairly recent history.
Director Johanna Hamilton; Writers Hamilton and Gabriel Rhodes; Cinematographers Andreas Burgess and Kirsten Johnson; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.
The revelations last year by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made a lot of waves — at least in the kinds of newspapers I read, particularly The Guardian, who were the ones to first report on the story — so it’s fascinating now to see a documentary account of how that came about. The revelations tie in to one of the great stories of our time, which is the way that governments increasingly use their citizens’ reliance on the internet to track them and spy on them, without any safeguards or oversight, so this documentary is not just torn from the headlines but itself a part of them. After all, director Laura Poitras was one of the people whom Snowden first contacted, and it was through her that lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald came into the picture. Of course, all of them now live outside the United States, for reasons that become fairly obvious, given the abuse of state powers to crack down on information that it is the public’s right to know about (Snowden is charged under a 100-year-old espionage law enacted during wartime that gives him no effective legal rebuttal). Poitras’s resulting documentary is largely based around their first meetings in an anonymous Hong Kong hotel room, where the strategy for reporting the story is formed, as she and Greenwald learn about their source. This could be a limitation, but even in this restricted setting (and partially because of it), there’s plenty of nailbiting drama to be had, as mysterious phone calls and fire alarms puncture their discussions. There’s contextualising footage too from various political hearings and activist meetings (not to mention a brief appearance from a certain Australian also on the run from authorities, for rather different reasons), but it’s Snowden and his revelations which are very much at the heart of this story. It makes for a fascinating account of our relationship to our own governments and to our online presence, even if the participants’ clearly idealistic beliefs in the power of an open internet can (I feel) sometimes be tested in practice by some of the opinion on offer out there. Still, even the ill-formed opinion of anonymous internet bullies is as nothing compared to the activities of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, and this documentary provides a welcome warning about the dangers of unchecked state aggression, wherever it exists and however it is cloaked.
Director Laura Poitras; Cinematographers Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen; Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014.