Can you make a documentary in which nothing is true? That was the initial idea behind Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President, which made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night. Pozdorovkin, who was raised in Moscow and wrote his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on the history of Soviet propaganda, set out to retell the story of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign entirely through clips from Russia’s most popular TV news channels, whose coverage wasn’t slanted in favor of Donald Trump so much as it was completely atilt.
In one sequence, Russia 1 network anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, who effectively runs all of the country’s major news outlets since Putin consolidated power under him in 2013, comments on footage of Barack Obama and then-incoming Donald Trump’s first White House meeting by saying Trump has the bearing of “an English lord,” while Obama is “throwing his arms about as if he was in the jungle.” It’s a shocking moment, enough so that the network later re-edited the clip and attempted to scrub it from the internet, but it only makes text what is the subtext of so much right-wing U.S. coverage. As Russian news anchors calmly explain how Hillary Clinton collapsed in public and is suffering brain damage, you wonder how the Russians could swallow this nonsense, and then you remember how many Americans did as well.
At under 80 minutes, Our New President is a brief but head-spinning immersion into an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton is cursed by an ancient mummy and Donald Trump is somehow the savior of both the U.S. and Russia, a leader whom Russians take to heart while crowing about how his election represents the most significant Russian victory since they annexed Crimea. On the eve of the film’s Sundance debut, Pozdorovkin talked to me about fake news, why Russians love Trump and hate Obama, and why documentaries need to be less earnest. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Adams: It can take a long time to assemble a found-footage film like this. Was this something you were working on before the 2016 election, or did it start after that?
Maxim Pozdorovkin: What happened was my editor came back from visiting Russia right after the election, and he was like, “Everyone’s very excited about Trump. Everyone keeps calling him ‘our new president.’ ” This is before the extent of the Russian role in the election was really known. I was trying to interview people and then make a narrative entirely out of false things that they believed about Trump or about the American election, but then the found-footage material that we kept on finding was so good we just started going with that, and it felt correct right away.
When Trump won, there was this immediate question: How the hell do you do something about Trump? Clearly every single earnest critique or investigative critique of him didn’t really do very much. I think if you’re intellectually honest about it, it helped him to a certain extent, just by perpetuating the media cult. For me, it was very important to try to figure out how to do something that wasn’t straight, that wasn’t earnest. I think that if there’s a problem with documentaries, it’s not that they’re not artful enough, it’s that they’re almost categorically earnest. I love Kate Plays Christine, which is very artsy and beautifully done, but that’s an earnest exploration of an actress preparing to play this role. There are very few films that speak in a different tone. When you’re doing fiction films, that’s really not the case, because the voice of a fiction film can be inflected in all sorts of subjective ways and we just don’t expect it to be earnest in this certain way. With this film, I was really inspired by this amazing film called Star Spangled to Death by Ken Jacobs, and there’s a wonderful film called Ordinary Fascism [also known as Triumph Over Violence] from the ’60s that’s essentially made out of Nazi newsreel bloopers.
You lived with Soviet propaganda, and you’ve studied it as well. Is there anything particularly different about this most recent wave?
One of the main guys in this film, essentially the main character, Dmitry Kiselyov, is the most popular TV host in Russia. He’s sort of a Hannity type. He’s the most-watched person on television. And he’s incredibly inflammatory. He was kind of notorious in the U.S. for saying these horrific things about how gays who were involved in car accidents should have their hearts burned and buried. In 2013, Putin decided to consolidate all the Russian media agencies into one, and he puts this guy Dmitry Kiselyov, sort of a monster in a way, in charge of all of it. It would be like if Hannity ran the AP and Reuters and had the most popular show on television.
When he introduces himself to his staff, he gives this incredible speech about how the word propaganda is a 20th-century term. He wants to erase the distinction altogether.
Yeah, basically “we’re past that, there’s no such thing.” One of the things that I’ve been surprised about is that a lot of people have told me that the film makes them think very critically about their own news diet. I think the reason for that is that this film is sort of a distillation of visual rhetoric and propaganda tactics, and by calling attention to that, you realize that evidentiary standards of journalism have been eroding for a while, under the pressure of celebrities, sensationalism, and all. What the Russian media did is essentially take that exploitation and push it to its logical endpoint, which is outright fabrication. There’s the moment where one of the TV hosts does this thing about how Trump, a simple kid from Brooklyn, can become president. How do you make sense of that simple error, that he’s not from Brooklyn, he’s from Queens. There’s no ideological point there, there’s nothing gained for Russia. It could be an accident, but I don’t necessarily think so.
It’s pretty staggering the extent to which Russians seem to embrace Trump as one of their own: They wear masks of him in public, portray him in stand-up comedy routines, even write rap songs about him. Is that normal?
Russians have never hated anyone as much as they’ve hated Obama. The thing is Obama really didn’t do very much. He basically ignored Russia. But the power of the media to really trump up what little there was and resort to the most heinous, racist stereotypes and everything else, is really on in this footage. One of the characteristics of Putin’s third term has been this increased anti-Americanism, this aggressive nationalism. Trump was a total reversal of that because people felt the cue that they were supposed to like him—or rather it was very obvious the extent to which there was kind of a character assassination against Hillary underway.
Even as much craziness as is on display in the film, the moment when Kiselyov talks about Obama coming from the “jungle” is shocking in its blatantness.
What happened with that clip is really fascinating, too. That clip aired, with the jungle reference, aired in Vladivostok, which is the easternmost time zone. I think that they either got a complaint or even figured out that they went overboard, they scrubbed it, and they took it out and they re-edited it, and he says something very similar but not quite as bad. Then they’ve been trying to scrub it from the internet. There’s a few, there’s probably a dozen things in the movie that have been wiped from the internet for various reasons, and that’s also sort of fascinating.
Do you think Trump or his administration have learned anything from the success of these Russian propaganda techniques?
That’s hard because I think Russian television essentially learned a lot of the 24-hour-news visual language from the West. In fact, it’s a similar media model, except it’s a vertical power.
They’re using the same tricks that they are borrowing from Western channels. A lot of times, the footage that we tried to license, we couldn’t, because the channels themselves steal it, so we can’t license it because they didn’t.