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Why CITIZENFOUR Oscar gives Snowden the seal of approval

The Academy's recognition of Laura Poitras's film strengthen's the case for whistleblowing against mass surveillance

At Sunday’s Academy Awards, CITIZENFOUR, the Laura Poitras film about whistleblower Edward Snowden took the award for best documentary film. The film received rave reviews from The Guardian and The Telegraph through to the New Yorker, which note, "’Citizenfour’ [sic] is worth watching, as well as celebrating", to emphasise both the standalone artistic merit of the film as well as its huge impact on politics.

Yet, the critical acclaim of the film community has been matched by a critical onslaught from Snowden's enemies. Proponents of secrecy went on the offensive even before digesting the scale of what Snowden disclosed. President Obama himself weighed in, ("No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot") alongside the intelligence agencies and almost the entire British political class (with honorable exceptions). We're still not comfortable with whistleblowing. Even the Oscars host, Neil Patrick Harris, took a little dig saying that Snowden couldn’t be there “for some treason.”

That's why the Oscar is a big deal. Attempts to place Laura Poitras, Snowden and the CITIZENFOUR team outside the boundaries of acceptability by the Obama administration have been rejected by the great and good of Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein a major backer of President Obama who was originally critical of Snowden's actions, changed his view on seeing CITIZENFOUR:

"They have one of the best movies, period, in this movie called CITIZENFOUR. It is about Edward Snowden, and it changed my opinion about him"

Direct message to Obama

The Oscar is a direct message to the President, the NSA and GCHQ, that discussions of national security are fair game for film-makers and journalists. Laura Poitras echoed this message in her Oscar acceptance speech:

“The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don't only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made, affecting all of us, are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control.”

Edward Snowden responded to the Oscar with a statement via the American Civil Liberties Union:

“When Laura Poitras asked me if she could film our encounters, I was extremely reluctant. I’m grateful that I allowed her to persuade me. The result is a brave and brilliant film that deserves the honor and recognition it has received. My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.”

The film will continue to inspire others to rethink their views on the expanding surveillance state.

89up, the publisher of Little Atoms, supported BRITDOC and Artificial Eye in the UK impact distribution of the film. Over 1,000 influencers from the fields of politics, the media, celebrities, civil society, think tanks and corporations came to see the film - with a major change in the perception of both Snowden himself but also the issue of secret state surveillance of ordinary citizens.

Without Snowden, there would be no debate. CITIZENFOUR is the first-hand account of how and why Edward Snowden told the world about US and UK programmes of mass surveillance. The Oscar has given the risk Snowden took the approval it deserves.

CITIZENFOUR has its UK television premiere this Wednesday on Channel 4 at 11.05pm

Mike is the publisher of Little Atoms and the Director of 89up. He has run high profile campaigns on Belarus and Azerbaijan, works with the Don't Spy On Us campaign and documentary film company BRITDOC on the Oscar-nominated film CITIZENFOUR. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Index on Censorship.

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