On “Citizenfour”

Last Thursday, I filed my last articles of 2016 for both jobs. Buzzer-beaters, to be sure, but I celebrated all the same by putting on a movie. There was nothing remotely festive on my flash drive, it was a bit too late to dig up alternatives, and the US Congress’ Intelligence Committee had just released its findings on Edward Snowden.

And that, friends, is how someone ends up watching Citizenfour for the holidays.


The last documentary in filmmaker Laura Poitras’ trilogy on post-9/11 America, Citizenfour drops you into the riveting, paranoiac story of how the world found out that it was being watched. It’s you in a Hong Kong hotel room, conferring with Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Edward Snowden on the US’ mass surveillance systems. It’s you on the receiving end of encrypted (and cryptic) emails with instructions for downloading classified documents. It’s you in the middle of game-changing revelations about privacy and state power. Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate: it’s Edward Snowden in the center, and for 144 minutes, you are an invested and equally vulnerable insider.

Make no mistake, this is an advocacy film. Citizenfour depicts Snowden as an intelligent and resolute NSA contractor who grew increasingly disillusioned with the agency’s ethically questionable surveillance programs. The leaks, Snowden says, were driven by patriotism and principle. Poitras and Greenwald never question him beyond that, nor does the film look at the fallout of Snowden’s actions. Instead, Poitras drills down on the leaks’ implications: millions of civilians under watch without cause or consent, the deception that sustained that surveillance, the alarming lapses in ethics and judgment that entails.
Together, your insider position and Poitras’ choice of focus transform Citizenfour from simple documentary to real-life cyberpunk thriller.

A lot of questions have been raised about Snowden’s motives and methods, and the recent US Congressional report on his ties with Russian intelligence only muddle the picture further. Faith in Snowden, however, is essential to Citizenfour. It creates clarity. That, in turn, lets the film have its high and immediate stakes: glossing over Snowden’s motives leaves him free to inhabit the role of intrepid cyberpunk protagonist, sending dispatches through the internet ether and living on a ticking clock set by sinister governments with motive and means to hunt him down. This is the chase that Citizenfour drops you into; the film’s narrow view indicates an understanding that looking over your shoulder is much easier when you aren’t asking questions about who’s beside you, too.

However, this gives the film an opacity that cuts a bit too close to the characteristic sins of its designated Big Bads. For a film about disclosure, Citizenfour holds back a lot. Like I said earlier, the film doesn’t go into the extent or the fallout of Snowden’s leaks either. There’s no mention or analysis of these disclosures’ effects on the US and UK intelligence communities, of what other forces (and states) can do with the leaked information, of what consequences (if any) the ensuing shake-up will have for civilians. That cuts out even more essential context for the leaks that Citizenfour asks you to judge, even applaud.

Overall, it’s an absorbing and illuminating documentary, though one that asks for more trust than its choices arguably earn. It’s a quality that Citizenfour shares with both Snowden and the agencies he exposes; in that sense, at the very least, Poitras has crafted the perfect portrayal.


Defining Dictatorship

Last Friday, November 18, the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos secreted his body into the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) for a long-contested burial. The Philippine National Police and the country’s armed forces secured the area, and a chopper from the national air force flew the strongman’s body down from Ilocos to be interred among the nation’s most revered citizens.

Look, I’m not highlighting the government’s role in this to be petty.

No, I’m pointing it out to underscore how the converse can also be true: just as the participation of government assets helped the event take place, a hero’s burial for Marcos enables certain possibilities for the government, too.

Martial Law is the picture of authoritarianism for the Philippines, and certainly the country’s most recent and most visceral experience of authoritarian rule. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board, created specifically to address the abuses wrought during that era, will be processing over 75,000 cases well into 2017. The country itself has been paying off Marcos-incurred foreign debt since the dictator’s ousting, and will continue to do so until 2025. The Martial Law period is a weight we struggle under to this day, and its memory is the strongest cornerstone in any conceptual defenses the country has against the idea – and appeal – of dictatorship.

In that sense, enshrining Martial Law’s chief architect in our Heroes’ Cemetery is exactly the kind of blow that accelerates what seems to be the steady rhetorical erosion of those defenses. For a long while now, various members of the current administration have, in one way or another, presented an increasingly chilling picture of the kind of leadership that they deem necessary to, as they say, “save the country”: disregard for due process and basic rights, especially if “required” to secure the “greater good” (i.e., national stability and progress); awesome executive powers concentrated in one office; ruthless policies, often carried out by emboldened law enforcement and armed forces; unquestioned and unaccountable authority. In that light, the rehabilitation of Marcos’ legacy seems not only understandable but essential.

This sudden hero’s burial is the gravest instance thus far, but this is not the first time that President Duterte and his surrogates have attempted to reframe our understanding of leadership.

And so we arrive, again, at the Marcos burial. Intended or not, it can – perhaps it already does; who knows? – serve dual purposes: erase one of our key reasons for resisting authoritarian rule, yes, but retroactively create a precedent that affirms our current administration’s predilection for strongman rule, too.

Many of the President’s supporters spin the above statements as misquoted or misunderstood; as off-the-cuff pronouncements that shouldn’t be seen as indicators of policy or intent; or perhaps worst, as jokes. But the President himself hasn’t made a secret of his beliefs and methods, and he has a long and public record to belie the assertion that his recent pronouncements don’t hold any kernel of sincerity or truth.

As the Communications Secretary has said: “He already warned the electorate that if you vote for me, there will be bloodshed. …[He] was voted.” In other words, we knew what we were in for.

Besides, campaign promises aside, we have had enough time to see for ourselves. Even prior to assuming the presidency, before he had any 2016 election voters to supposedly woo with promises of swift and total “justice,” Mr. Duterte already defended the kind of governance that deemed shoot-to-kill orders as legal, proper, and moral. As far back as 2001, assassination and targeted killings have been Mr. Duterte’s answer to crime, an approach driven by the idea of “[serving] the greater good no matter what it takes”; unsurprisingly, the Human Rights Watch notes that his political rise “coincided…[with] city mayors [gaining]…greater operational control over their police forces.”

And so on, and so on.

So, pause. Go back. Take a look at those dates. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a far-ranging one. The fact is, for all of his apparent inconsistencies, his volatility and his habit of veering off-script, certain key aspects of the President’s statements and behavior have remained unchanged. Indeed, they have been taken up and amplified by many members of his administration, from Cabinet members like Andanar and Aguirre to his many allies in the Congressional supermajority. If these statements are all jokes, un-meant, of no consequence, then we should worry about how much time and vehemence our government has poured into repeating them. And if these aren’t jokes, then we should worry even more.

Either way, intended or not, all of these instances add up. Taken together, these pronouncements can redraw – have perhaps already started redrawing – the lines that delineate what actions and decisions we deem acceptable, even necessary, for the good of the country.

We can quibble about questions of intent and interpretation; it’s tempting to refrain from even mentioning any of these instances in the same sentence as “dictatorship.” Sure. Okay. Nobody wants to be the hysteric. But refusing to even consider these instances in aggregate and to think about what they might mean for the future of our country contributes, in its own way, to the same erosions of memory and resistance that these events are helping along.

By opting for the supposed objectivity of “wait and see,” or by dismissing these statements as jokes or hyperbole, we are not being charitable. Instead, we’re giving a pass to these words and actions – as well as to the particular brands of history, values, and outlook that come with them. Too “trivial” to be engaged with, too frivolous (or alternatively, too important to national welfare) for critique, let alone alarm. In short, we’re letting potential seeds of dictatorship live.

The motto of dictatorship, as authoritarianism scholar Sarah Kendzior notes, is: “It can’t happen here.” But it has happened. Dismissing the possibility of it happening again only makes us blind to recent rhetorical trends that could easily be transformed into the conceptual foundations of a new regime. When we file our own dark history as unthinkable – or worse yet, as desirable – then we unmoor our present from the hard-won anchors that can keep us from being swept away. By forgetting, by agreeing again and again to let things go, we diminish our capacity and willingness to resist.

What’s the word?

From Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones, which I also mentioned over here and which I’m still reading:

“Peoples of color” sounded awkward if translated literally, so I used the standard Chinese term for minorities: shaoshu minzu. Of course, that was just as odd in English: “small-number ethnic groups.” Perhaps somewhere in the world there was a language that handled this issue gracefully, but it wasn’t English or Chinese.

As far as I know, it isn’t Filipino either, which doesn’t seem to have a similar blanket term for minorities at all. (This observation is just off the top of my head, though, so please feel free to correct me.) I asked a friend who speaks Cebuano, and she also came up blank.

This also brought us to the interesting flavor of the words for “foreigner” or “immigrant”: dayuhan or dayo, which carry connotations of passage and transience that I think are worth probing. When we speak of foreigners, there’s the obvious dimension of “they’re not from here,” but the words we use to refer to them also bear some shades of, “they’re just passing through” or “they’re not going to stay.” I might just be spouting threadbare thoughts here, but I think that makes for some interesting linguistics-inspired takes on how Filipinos might interact with issues of im/migration that have become so prominent today.