USA,Russia 2018, 1h 17min
One of the most bizarre of a slew of media-manufactured stories about America’s top political players is that Hillary Clinton’s contact with the remains of an ancient «mummy princess» from Siberia cost her the last election. Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary Our New President, which premiered at Sundance, opens with Russian news footage of the then First Lady touching down at Novosibirsk’s airport in 1997, accompanied by eerie, dramatic sound effects. A Moscow news channel explains that she was cursed by a preserved royal who usually trades in natural disasters but decided, so shamans say, to unleash the Monica Lewinsky scandal, campaign-scuppering fainting spells and coughing fits. It’s a suitably surreal beginning to a film that, being wholly compiled from Russian television coverage and YouTube clips surrounding the election of Donald Trump, barrages us with an onslaught of misinformation. By the end, our understanding of the extent of the «fake news» crisis we are in has been bolstered, as has our understanding of the way in which outrageous truth-tampering is weakening traditional media outlets’ ability to uphold democracy.
Fake news equals fake reality
Among the previous documentaries of Russian director Pozdorovkin is Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which, in following the court cases of today’s most famous anti-Kremlin activists, drew parallels to the Soviet-era show trials of dissidents. That film started with a line from political playwright Bertolt Brecht: «Art is not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer with which to shape it.» Turning his attention from resistance artists to state shills with Our New President, Pozdorovkin taps science-fiction author Philip K. Dick for an opening quote to encapsulate the current clout of Russia’s media of disorientation, which may now have the upper hand in moulding citizen perceptions: «Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities.» In the fraught battle to control the public narrative, the means are now much sneakier than naked force.
«Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities.» – Philip K. Dick
Though we can discern whose side Pozdorovkin is on, he provides no overarching narrator to guide us through the chaotic assemblage of clips. This is a wise choice, even if it presumes more background knowledge of the Russian election-hacking scandal than less news-savvy viewers may possess. Our inability to cling to any reliable «outside» in terms of an anchor of presumed objectivity from which to judge this hall of distorted mirrors forces us to immersively experience first-hand a mediated world in which there is no hierarchy of information; to plunge down its rabbit hole of dizzying absurdity.
And absurdity there is aplenty. Piled in with the mummy curse story are musings on astral charts and conspiracy theories, and sensational assertions about business-as-usual in Washington: that Hillary suffers from «retardation» and routinely has her opponents bumped off; that the US administration starts each day by doing cocaine; that a chemical attack in Syria was staged as a provocation. That Trump owed his 2016 victory to Putin is another claim Russian news outlets have embraced. With election meddling confirmed by US intelligence and the realm of possibility having stretched to contain the far-fetched, the blending of bizarre truths with extravagant lies has only added to our sense of a lack of meaning and fatigue when faced with the news cycle. Issues and rational argument have paled into the background; the news is now spectacle.
«Putin himself appears in the frame often, grinning smugly as if mastermind of a joke that’s fooled us all.»
News agencies as state puppets
Our New President provides an insightful overview of how Putin, since coming to power, has consolidated Russia’s news organisations into state puppets. Dmitry Kiselyov, a figure who features prominently as head of the state-funded international television network Russia Today, rejects that his organisation is guilty of spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation, saying of its coverage: «If it’s propaganda, it’s the propaganda of common sense.» He advises his newsroom, however, that the era of «detached, unbiased journalism is over», denounces objectivity as a «myth», and announces that «editorial policy will be based on love of Russia». It is an alarmingly frank admission of disdain for the core values of any free press, and underscores that his nation’s media honchos barely have to pretend anymore that their salacious, tabloid-style fare is in service to the truth. A troll factory in St Petersburg with blacked-out windows is shown, its young employees arriving for their shifts to flood social media with posts from fake accounts supporting Russian actions in Ukraine or advocating for the presidency of Trump. Influence operations in service of Russian political interests are the order of the day.
Putin himself appears in the frame often, grinning smugly as if mastermind of a joke that’s fooled us all. Including Trump, who may be valued by the Russian state as an asset but is suggested to be no less of a prize buffoon because of it (footage of his obsessive rearranging of objects on any table before him is one of several clips played for laughs that emphasise his awkward fit for public office). Our New President draws toward a close with footage of the two presidents meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Journalists crush to pile into the room like paparazzi, flashbulbs blazing, pointing to a disquieting truth about our complicity in the media spectacle and mass consumption of today: this may all be a circus, but it’s one we just can’t get enough of.