The best promotional item I’ve received recently is a rag doll with Donald Trump on one side and Vladimir Putin on the other, complete with a set of pins to stick in it. It’s all part of an effort to promote Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary Our New President, a film assembled out of Russian news footage and YouTube videos about the 2016 U.S. election, which made for an appropriate collage-comedy-clusterfuck to kick off the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Last year, the festival coincided with Trump’s inauguration and seemed to try to appeal to the better angels of our nature by showing the (frustratingly weak) Al Gore doc An Inconvenient Sequel. Now, a full year into our new national nightmare, Sundance has gone in a somewhat less ennobling direction. Pozdorovkin’s film offers relatively little context; rather, it drowns us in clips of Russian news anchors breathlessly peddling obvious untruths and ordinary Russians gleefully parroting back this nonsense.
The film is certainly, on some base level, entertaining: It’s hard not to laugh — albeit bitterly — at the spectacle of deluded Russians on YouTube offering up their acoustic ballads to Trump, or drinking themselves silly in his honor, or droning on about Clinton conspiracy theories. What little structure there is centers on the development of television as a state propaganda tool in Russia — beginning with the opening of Moscow’s Ostankino broadcasting tower in 1967 (as a project “to influence moral life”) then moving on to the expansion of the country’s TV networks, including the inauguration of the notorious RT, Russia Today, as a purportedly respectable international news outlet with immense global reach.
Today’s Kremlin-approved channels deliver their fake news with a perverse gloss and flash. One executive proudly admits that they’re effectively indulging in propaganda: “The time of detached, unbiased journalism is over. … Objectivity is a myth forced upon us.” We also get to see how the Russian media turned on Trump after he assumed office and U.S. policy toward Russia didn’t seem to change all that much.
But what exactly is this film saying? That there are idiots and racists and sexists on the Internet? That the world is filled with misinformation, both unintentional and sinister? Russia doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on dingbats blathering online; you’ll find these jagoffs pretty much wherever you go. The targets here seem rather easy ones, and after wallowing in the spectacle of these people making fools of themselves online, I yearned for more context and depth.
Pozdorovkin’s work is most revealing when he presents footage of actual Russian newscasters — people who should know better — indulging in this grotesque nonsense. But again, go to any country and you’ll find loads of fake news, both political and apolitical. Is the world’s current love affair with bullshit really guided by the sinister goals of megalomaniacal despots, or by the traditional laws of spectacle and demand? People love a good story, and to hell with the truth.
I suppose all this might have been chilling if Russia itself ever had a reputation for journalistic integrity or rigor. What Our New President does demonstrate is the failure of the country to develop a culture of public discourse or honesty, but that’s an analog of its failure to establish democratic institutions. (The real tragedy is that this is also happening in the U.S., which supposedly does — or did once — value the idea of honest journalism.) The rot, in other words, lies deeper. Our New President merely scratches the surface, and in its own weird way, comes to embody the plague of shallow spectacle it purports to fight against.