If the feeling at the fairly liberal leaning Sundance Film Festival — held last year after Trump’s election but before the inauguration —was one of impending doom, this year it’s all about prophecy fulfilled.
From asides about how terrible last year was by program directors before screenings to a slate peppered with documentaries and other programs that explore the impact of social media and the changing nature of news on society, the President is a presence.
One such doc was ‘Our New President’, by Maxim Pozdorovkin. Assembled completely out of either amateur or Russian television news footage that the director hoped would compose “a film that uses the news to tell a story without a single true statement.”
For the film, Pozdorovkin assembled a bunch of Russian news footage, mostly from RT and NTV, which are both government controlled now. The footage contains statements designed to craft an image of Hillary Clinton as an ailing, insane, inept leader and Donald Trump as a conquering hero that respects and loves Russia. It also paints all Russian citizens with a broad brush as unable to make up their own mind because they are brainwashed by falsehoods pounded into the shape of truth by state media.
None of those things are true, but the power of repetition with authority to warp minds is sort of the point of the film.
There are two major themes. One is a straightforward through a mirror darkly vision of the US election through Russian media machine eyes. Some of the statements in the news clips in the film made the audience laugh out loud (the “ha ha, we know better” reaction) and some made them gasp in horror (“who would believe such an outlandish thing?”)
Nothing here is all that fresh. If you’ve spent any time on the Internet, regardless of whether you’re a Trump supporter or horror-struck at his governance, the topic of Russian media, hacking to support (or later discredit when necessary) Trump’s presidency and whether news is ‘fake’ or ‘real’ has been at the top of every family meal discussion list. Many of these clips have been widely circulated before, especially the one of now-indicted Trump advisor Michael Flynn at a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The second meta theme is the decimation of the basic concept of truth. In one standout clip, Russian ersatz-right-wing-pundit Dmitry Kiselyov flat-out tells a group of journalists at RT being transitioned into government control that if the media says something that is not fact-based, but supports the government agenda, then that’s truth enough.
It’s this constant pounding and cross-referencing of falsehoods as truth or, even more sinister, the 1-to-1 alignment of truth and opinion as equal and equivalent, that threatens to break through the relatively rapid fire and context-free clip assembly job of ‘Our New President’.
It’s too bad I didn’t like it more.
Much of the impact of the whole thing is unfortunately blunted by the fact that RT and NTV are state-run media and are therefore expected to exert their power to present a “truth” that supports the state agenda. I would have watched the heck out of a doc like this that assembles a narrative from both Fox News clips and liberal media in the US and presents them as a juxtaposition. ‘Our New President’ is content to stand at arm’s length.
It’s the documentary equivalent of a late-night substance altered YouTube crawl through Russian propo clips where you say “wow, isn’t this crazy” before passing out with a Doritos bag on your chest.
The lack of context, the clumsy framing of the story as a curse put on Clinton by a Russian mummy that itself turns out to be fake and the lack of willingness to say something beyond “look at this” reduces the impact of the themes above, ones that are well worth investigating.
Mainly, I think it’s just too long.
When I was going into the screening I mis-read the running time and thought that it was going to be 15 minutes long. It is not, it is instead 77 minutes of clips strung together. By the 40th minute I couldn’t wait for the 78th minute.
In fact, this is an extended version of a 15-minute short that Pozdorovkin made last year. I haven’t seen that version but I imagine that it was probably a lot better by nature of having to get in and get out and make its point.
In an interview this week, Pozdorovkin said that he and editor Matney Kulakov knew that “one creative question towered above all others: how the hell do we make this watchable for 78 minutes?”
Unfortunately, the answer is: you don’t.