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Russian-American director Maxim Pozdorovkin delivers a sly slow-burning oddity in this documentary about Russia’s love for Donald Trump, made up entirely of state news clips and bizarre user-generated videos. It’ll annoy many with its refusal to take a stance beyond the absurdity of it all, but that lack of easy outrage makes it a true original. An important documentary for our times too, taking us deep into the heart of a bubble far from our own.
Pozdorovkin has a structural purity to his film which is admirable, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Essentially an essay on Russian media and pop culture, he splits it into discrete chapters that are interchangeable and near-identical. Each makes the same point that Putin sees news broadcasting as a tool for ensuring love for the country, and in 2016 the main message he wanted to convey was that Clinton was bad and Trump was great. The film doesn’t attempt to speculate on why Putin might have done this so forcefully, and indeed suggests that the reasons don’t matter. In Putin’s Russia, what matters is that broadcasting is a medium for ensuring unity and the message itself doesn’t matter very much.
There’s a lot of fun to be had – the terrible songs about Trump are highlights, especially a university lecturer whose military march composition would probably appeal to the man himself. Many Russians like to put on Trump masks and have a dance. Some toast his victory at home with vodka and elaborate speeches. There’s a lot more going on than laughing at the obscure corners of the Russian internet, however. The chutzpah of news anchors’ twisting of stories about Clinton makes the blood boil, and there’s layer upon layer of questioning of Russia Today’s veneer of respectability. There’s no doubt left that for Putin, RT is a key modern tool of genteel propaganda.
Indeed, the most successful sections of the film might be when we leave the media intended for Russian audiences and see RT’s international channels. Correspondents and commenters with admirable careers of journalistic credibility appear to go weak at the knees when given the opportunity to present a Russo-centric analysis on the channel. Many viewers of the film won’t watch the channel regularly, they’ll come away fearing its influence and wondering how so many of its contributors are so easily used. Although Our New President advertises itself as being a film about Trump’s election, it’s saying something bigger and more frightening – we may think we are laughing at the naivety of Putin’s domestic audience, but he’s worked out how to dictate to an international audience as well.
Those wanting a straightforward documentary listing Trump’s flaws or finding a smoking gun about Russian hacking will be disappointed, and for this reason it will divide opinion. There are some missteps, especially the opening and closing sections about the discovery of the bones of an ancient Russian princess – a confusing, if audacious, sideline which went over my head completely. For the most part, however, the strangeness of the film’s editorial choices is an asset – an irrational documentary for irrational times. As suggested in an opening quote from Philip K Dick, Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America rely not only on fake news, but also fake humans consuming it who are happy with the fakeness if it’s a good spectacle and a laugh. For making smart observations like this that creep up on one slowly, and maintaining constant interest in a film crafted with such complexity, Pozdorovkin is to be congratulated.
- Our New President is showing at the Sundance film festival
Source: The Guardian
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