The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Sundance filmmaker has made a movie about the Russian propaganda machine, and it is terrifying

PARK CITY, UTAH — A lot of energy has been spent lately trying to decode the false information that state-sponsored Russian entities spread to Americans during the 2016 election cycle.

Far less attention has been paid to decoding the false information state-sponsored Russian entities spread to their own people during that time.

For example, during the 2016 election, Russian television regularly reported that Hillary Clinton was at death’s door, as though it was a fact as immutable as gravity.

Or that Donald Trump had worked his way up from a hardscrabble childhood in Brooklyn.

Such are some of the scenes in “Our New President,” a Sundance film composed almost completely of clips from the modern Russian propaganda machine. And it is terrifying.

“My idea was to make a movie based entirely on actual footage without a single true statement in it,” Maxim Pozdorovkin, the film’s Russian American director, told The Post.

Any American viewer who has caught the English-language Russian news network RT will be familiar with the modern brand of Kremlin-flavored news emanating from Moscow. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg compared to what’s shown nightly in Russia on state-run outlets like Vesti and NTV, Pozdorovkin argues in his new film.

The Russian-language media meant for the country’s roughly 150 million people has an aggressively fake-news approach to its coverage: Clinton, for instance, engages in satanic rituals, sexual abuse and murder, these news outlets straight-facedly report. She also suffers from mental disabilities.

“What’s happening in Russia right now is basically an experiment in fake news and fabrication on a much larger scale,” Pozdorovkin, in his mid-30s and fluent in Russian, said of the state-run machine. “It’s as if Alex Jones had the ratings of Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow put together.”

As the movie plays to audiences for the first time this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, it aims to illuminate not just a media environment on the other side of the globe but how the mechanism of fake news itself works. Many of the details in Russia’s coverage of global news, Pozdorovkin argues, are almost intentionally obfuscated.

Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. (Video: Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation)

“Even facts that are easy to verify, like where Donald Trump is from,” he said. “They do it like ‘maybe he’s from Brooklyn, maybe he’s from Queens, different people say different things.’ ” It’s meant to confuse so that the viewer doesn’t believe in any objective truth — so that objective truth begins not to matter.”

The director’s movie, which is seeking distribution at the festival, aims to inform a news cycle that until now has primarily focused on Russian disinformation efforts in the United States, and to show how the mind-set that underlies those moves was honed long ago on the home front. Pravda and the print media did a primitive version of propaganda during the Cold War. Russian cable-news outlets have been increasing the outrages — and production values — ever since.

Pozdorovkin avoids any talking heads, so that the narrative is told through the clips themselves, which stacked back-to-back begin to have an almost satirical effect. “Having an authoritative voice, even accurate ones, would play to Western biases. And it would make the film seem too earnest,” Pozdorovkin said. (The filmmaker said he obtained clearances for as much as he can and relies on fair use for the rest, but he acknowledges that the Kremlin could try to suppress or prosecute the film, at least in Russia.)

Though it has been upped with recent events such as Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, the possibility to disseminate state-approved messages as journalism in modern Russia, the director argues, began more than a decade before.

That’s when the government took over much of Russian media, such as what was then the popular independent channel NT. “President” shows incriminating iPhone footage of government leaders who have been appointed to media-executive positions coming into newsrooms and essentially saying there’s a new sheriff in town — or, as one official puts it, a “propaganda of common sense.”

Their efforts soon bear fruit. Eye-opening in “Our New President” are video clips of Russian people who, fed a steady stream of this “news,” begin internalizing the message. One viewer pours shots and toasts to Trump after he defeats Clinton, believing that a demon has been defeated. Another breaks out a guitar and earnestly performs a minstrel-y ode to Trump.

What they are specifically responding to in the Russian media’s propaganda is not entirely clear, though one citizen breaks it down uncomplicatedly. “We like anyone who likes us,” they essentially say. “And Donald Trump likes us.”

An immigrant to the U.S. from Russia — he arrived at 9 as the Iron Curtain was collapsing — Pozdorovkin was immediately struck by the way the countries’ differing media systems work. He earned a PhD from Harvard and several years ago co-directed “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” the hit film about the female-led punk band that ended up in jail after angering the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, becoming a Western cause celebre in the process.

Pozdorovkin developed “Our New President” — the title’s collective pronoun is meant as its own comment because many of the Russian people shown in the movie rejoicing at Trumps’s election believe he is their new president, too — from a short he had made for Laura Poitras’ company, Field of Vision. Dan Cogan, one of the feature film’s producers, noted that “it plays like a horror comedy — you’re laughing even as you’re scared.” Among the more amusing bits is the suggestion that anti-Trump protesters are paid hundreds of dollars to take to the streets.

But what reads as funny for a time could wear out its welcome over 80 minutes — “President” implicitly asks what happens when a diet of misinformation becomes a feast.

“I know it’s a difficult movie to watch. I mean, I couldn’t watch it for a while,” Pozdorovkin said.

The director suggests late in the film that the Internet is a slightly more democratic platform, though recent events even in a media-rich country like the United States show manipulations are possible. Ultimately, the message rippling under “Our New President,” is that a militarily strong country with control over the media is trying to impose its view on the people and having great success doing so — and at great cost.

“Some have said the movie is a dispassionate critique of Western media since watching Russians watching their state’s news reveals our own biases in consuming media,” Pozdorovkin said. “And it is that in a way. But it’s also an alarm bell. While I can’t quantify the danger or impact, what I’m trying to encourage people to do is see what happens when people consume disinformation and regurgitate it — what happens when you erode an institution that’s foundational to democracy.”