Watching Our New President is like having one eye focused on an Infowars video while the other is immersed in Monty Python's Flying Circus. You're also wearing headphones blasting some obscure Russian text as you breathe in the pungent smell of peyote smoke.
The film, which will screen at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival at 9:30 a.m. Saturday is not some avant-garde audiovisual experiment but a 78-minute collection of Russian news footage covering the buildup to the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath. It begins with a subtitled anchor informing viewers that the ancient remains of a warrior princess cursed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton when she was America's first lady. The surreal clip comes not from an obscure YouTube video but from the state-owned Russia-1.
"That's the most watched channel," explains Our New President director Maxim Pozdorovkin during an interview at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., in March.
"There you have Dmitry Kiselyov, who is both the most-watched broadcaster, and also, when Putin consolidated the media in 2013, it would be like if [Fox News host Sean] Hannity -- on top of having the most popular show -- was appointed to The Associated Press and Reuters."
The clips feature Kiselyov commenting on familiar events in the west through a type of fun-house mirror. For example, the Russia-1 crew praises the nation's ambassador to the United Nations for standing up to the Security Council over Russia's support for the regime of Syrian leader Bashir al Assad.
"The situation in Syria is also kind of the real-world consequence of this. My idea for the film was how do you take something like fake news and make people actually think something about it on a visceral level and not have it be just an abstraction. In that Syria footage, you're seeing footage of dead children that the newscasters claim was staged and fabricated. We show the U.N. Security Council scene to show these fabricated news stories are being recycled in those arenas," Pozdorovkin says.
The film also features clips from seemingly ordinary Russians, only one hiding behind an aluminum foil mask who asks to meet the current American president by name, while another features a little girl coaching her little sister how to deliver a propaganda message.
According to Pozdorovkin, these surreal moments and more recent assertions Kiselyov has made declaring that the #MeToo movement is part of a plan to desexualize the United States are part of a seemingly silly but remarkably effective strategy.
"What's important to remember about the way that propaganda works is that its intent is to disorient as much as it is to disinform," he says.
"When you work to turn the Internet into a garbage dump of disinformation, and you're giving people lots and lots of inconsistent information, it creates people who give up on the project of figuring out what's actually true or not and believe whatever sort of 'feels' right and become more complacent on political subjects."
IMAGES FROM HOME
Our New President also features footage from the formerly independent NTV channel, which frequently ran stories critical of the Kremlin until the government took it over. It doesn't take much effort to determine when a given piece of NTV footage might have been put together.
The documentary also includes generous samples from Russia Today (RT), which is aimed at an English-speaking audience and includes established American commentators like former CNN host Larry King (who toadies up to Vladimir Putin in the film), the late Ed Schultz, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges and other familiar faces.
Some of the commentary on the channel has more than Kremlin talking points. According to Pozdorovkin, "One of the things that RT does smartly is that they hire people like Larry King, and I'm sure they don't tell Larry King what to do at all and they get the imprimatur of his association, so they don't need him to do anything.
A LABOR OF DREAD
If the "news" featured on these channels is embellished or simply the product of fertile and deranged imaginations, Our New President is a strangely restrained if emotionally draining affair.
"When you do an entirely archival film, there's a certain kind of purity in it in that all you're doing is just trying to make it watchable," Pozdorovkin says. "We had a big group of people causing themselves semi-permanent brain damage from gathering this material all the time."
One guinea pig was American producer Joe Bender, who attended True/False with the director.
"We have similarly extreme voices here in the U.S., but they're not given the same level of authority," Bender says. "It's as if Alex Jones or some of these extreme voices were on the nightly news on every channel.
"I had a layman's understanding of the Russian media landscape, but it was completely mind-blowing to see how deep the rabbit hole was once I started seeing this material."
The subject is personal and troubling for Pozdorovkin who lived in Russia the first 10 years of his life. He's since received a Ph.D from Harvard and is currently a junior fellow at the university.
"I feel very close to Russian culture," Pozdorovkin says. "I find all of the television propaganda deeply corrosive, and my dad watches all that stuff, and I argue with him about it."
The director says that some YouTube channels have provided younger Russians with credible alternatives to the voices on Russia-1, and Bender has advice for news consumers everywhere.
"Drawing attention to the sources of this material when we see it's popping up in our own news environment is very important," he says. "It's important to know that not all sources are equal. Working against false equivalency with minority viewpoints and majority viewpoints. Those are the directions to go about it. This kind of campaign really relies on sort of shouting the loudest and having the force of repetition set the truth of the utterance rather than its foundation. That sort of education is not to take all assertions at face value and to look beneath the surface. It's the only way we can counter it."
MovieStyle on 10/19/2018
Print Headline: Our New President centers on Russia's '16 election coverage