In the avalanche of stories to come from the American press about Donald Trump since he decided to run for president, it's hard to imagine what new angle a documentarian could come up with to explore the subject with fresh eyes.
But Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin has found one in "Our New President," which is apparently composed entirely of media that either broadcast on Russian news channels during the 2016 election and first year of the Trump administration or online from Russian citizens, reacting in typically casual internet-video style.
The thing about Russian news is that it is controlled by the Russian government. Vladimir Putin is a recurring character in the film, popping up at events with journalists he has installed to never run material that questions the state, and to actively disseminate material that falls in line with government-created narratives.
I'm glad the film spends so much time at everyday Russian citizens, who cannot entirely be blamed for holding a distorted view of American politics, given the filtered lens of it that they are given.
And the film also explores how Russian-spun coverage of American politics was not only a product meant for internal distribution within a closed bubble, but has also been an export to the outside world. The film uses plenty of footage from the English-speaking Russian news channel RT, and dips into the story of Russian folks taking to social media to influence American voters online during the campaign.
Notably, the filtered and slanted material that has come into Russian homes is essentially identical to what Americans saw on Breitbart -- conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton's health, puff pieces on Trump making him look statesmanlike, etc. And while the brazen publication of (truly) "fake news" in America presents certain threats to democratic discourse, as misinformation gets spread across social media platforms, the film illuminates what happens when misinformation is the primary news product.
The film is frequently funny, in a darkly disturbing way, and one of the big takeaways is just how much the news we follow influences what we believe about the world -- a lesson worth considering even for those whose societies enjoy the freedom of the press.
I think it drags on a bit in parts -- even with a short running time of 77 minutes, it feels overlong -- but its topic is fascinating, and its approach is fresh, making it worth seeking out.
Trump says "fake news" is the enemy of the people, and I agree -- though not in the way he means. Eroding the trust in news sources chips away at the press' ability to hold power to account. The end result of that, at least in America, will not be restrictions to publish whatever journalists find, but the lessening of the impact of that journalism, with news consumers and citizens believing whatever sources they want, ignoring whatever others.
"Our New President" gives American viewers a glimpse into a society with a gutted press, and it's not a pretty picture. But it is a good film.
Director: Maxim Pozdorovkin
Running time: 1 hour, 17 min
Festival Program: World Cinema Documentary Competition