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Sundance 2018: Pozdorovkin’s Our New President

We begin with April Wolfe, writing for Film Comment and introducing us to Maxim Pozdorovkin and Our New President, which “tells a thrilling, scary, mind-bending, and often-hilarious story of Russian propaganda’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, constructed almost entirely of Russian newsreel footage, along with some very choice YouTube clips of Russian citizens enacting their comically severe distaste for Clinton and adoration for Trump. ‘We wanted to see if it was possible to make a documentary out of news without a single true statement in it,’ Pozdorovkin says. ‘The basic litmus test for what we would include was whether or not there was enough falsity in the claim in the clip.’”

“Depending on how much you’ve read about e.g. the international ‘news network’ Russia Today or its flagship anchorman Dmitri Kiselyov, Our New President will be eye-opening (for the totally uninformed), a useful side-dossier (for Russiagate moderate-level students), or a morbidly amusing refresher/anthology of the kitschiest crass propaganda Russian TV can offer (expert level),” writes Vadim Rizov in a dispatch back to Filmmaker. “As a morbid deep-diver into the worst conservative conspiracy theories the English-language net has to offer, some of this was still new to me—I’d seen memes about Hillary’s killer cough, sure, but not so much Russian astrological programs examining the ‘godlike’ lines in Trump’s hands, as parsed by ‘experts.’”

“Using every conceivable permutation of sound and image, Our New President is a film that tries to express something true about something false,” Pozdorovkin tells Filmmaker, which is also running an interview with Pozdorovkin and co-editor Matvey Kulakov, who says, “I had never seen movies quite like this one before, so there was no reference point that shaped the film from the outset. All we had was our intuition.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman finds Our New President “sometimes funny, and sometimes depressing (the film runs seventy-seven minutes, and you wouldn’t want it to be a minute longer). But mostly it’s scary, because what it reveals is that fake-news culture is now an escalating global phenomenon, a tidal wave of untruth that’s growing and surging in power: in Europe, in the United States, and in the authoritarian regimes—like Russia’s—that perfected this virus in the first place. It’s a brave new world, but in many ways it’s an old world, a medieval cosmos of strong-man heroes, and evil spirits doing battle, and more and more of the masses of men and women reduced to brainwashed pawns. The message of Our New President is that you can rail against fake news all you want, but the sinister bottom line is that fake news is getting bigger by the day. What’s shrinking? Reality, and democracy.”

“Granted, the framing device is a bit clunky, the cut-off point sometime around the Hamburg G20 conference seems a bit arbitrary, and the provenance of some clips a bit confusing,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “Nevertheless, this is still an impressively assembled work . . . It's worth stressing that there's no fresh news revealed here: All this material was already in the public domain, and the Russian press and public don't necessarily know any more about the extent of their government's tactics to shape the election than we in the West do. They're just less shocked by it.”

Our New President is one of three films Nicolas Rapold and Eric Hynes discuss in yesterday’s episode of the Film Comment Podcast (30’10”).

Update, 1/21: “But what exactly is this film saying?” asks Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “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.”

Updates, 1/22: “The movie is divided into eight ‘chapters,’ each of which tackles a different facet of propaganda (one for Clinton conspiracy theories, one for Vladimir Putin’s relationship to Russian TV, and so on).” Daniel Schindel at the Film Stage: “The doc’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite draw all these topics together into a conclusive statement, acting more as an overview than drawing sturdy lines between points x, y, and z.”

“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,” writes Charlie Phillips for the Guardian.

“With various Russian citizens discussing [troll farms] as a matter of fact, like a business they see people run into early in the morning and at night, they become all the more real,” finds Nick Allen at “Our New President also has a stolen glimpse from inside one of these troll farms. It’s telling that this matter-of-fact confirmation of Russian interference is not the most disturbing aspect of this wild documentary.”

Update, 1/23: “It’s not likely an accident that most of the self-filmed tributes to the new Commander-in-Chief are from men young and old, with women typically used objects in these videos if they’re there at all,” writes Monica Castillo for Little White Lies. “Somewhere between a bizarre video attributing Clinton’s ‘poor health’ to a mummy’s curse and music videos where a rapper imposes Trump’s face over his own, the film’s message—whatever it was—is lost.”

Update, 1/25: “The scenes of actual Russian news broadcasts are so mesmerizing in their bald-faced agenda-peddling that it’s frustrating how much time Our New President spends on videos made by everyday Russian citizens celebrating Trump,” finds Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly.

Update, 1/26: “At its best, President is a witty repurposed media collage, its mixture of juxtapositions, music cues, and archival clips displaying a pronounced Atomic Café influence,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey. “But it’s also far too scattershot, with some dodgy digressions and far too many YouTube videos of tributes, testimonials, and (gulp) songs.”

Update, 2/6: “Pozdorovkin has built his career as a investigative provocateur documenting subjects with sizable political force,” writes Matthew Roe at Ioncinema. “This project has all of the same sociopolitical intensity and cultural awareness, though it indicts not only the Russian state but the slow death of journalistic integrity on the international stage. It is frustrating, bewildering and utterly effective, raising far more questions than answers.”

Sundance 2018 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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