'Influence': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Rakes the muck, but it gets very messy.

Notorious spin-doctor Lord Timothy Bell and his now disgraced PR company Bell Pottinger are examined in this documentary by South African journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille.

There's a notion that crops up a lot on left-wing social media and the political-journalistic blogosphere, especially in relation to stories about the black arts of manipulating public opinion online — Cambridge Analytica, Cyprian offshore banks, Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, Brexit or the fetid nexus of oligarchs and corrupt regimes, and so on: It's all one big story. Maybe that's just podcast paranoia, a conspiracy theory for the CBD gummies generation, but there are a hell of a lot of connections, not to mention a paper mill's worth of receipts.

Given the unholy girth of this congealing fatberg of compacted facts and interconnected figures, anyone who opts to tease apart a few greasy tangles that hold subparts of this morass together is to be saluted. That's just what South African journalist-filmmakers Richard Poplak and Diana Neille set out to do with Influence, their sprawling, continent-hopping documentary deep dive and ocean-floor swim into the nefarious doings of PR firm Bell Pottinger.

An exposé in several publications, not least the South African investigative news site The Daily Maverick, where co-director Poplak is editor-at-large, uncovered Bell Pottinger's role in unethically and illegally stoking racial unrest in South Africa in order to benefit the influential Gupta family, backers of S.A.'s then-president Jacob Zuma, who resigned in 2018. The resulting fallout led to the company filing for bankruptcy.

On one level, Influence bravely tries to lay out what the whole Gupta-Zuma-Bell Pottinger story was about. But that's a gnarly task given the sweaty knot of connections, names and figures attached to the story. Even committed connoisseurs of corporate corruption may find it difficult to follow along with the film's narrative, especially since it digresses frequently to touch on related topics.

Indeed, it could be argued that the S.A.-connection isn't even the prime subject here; Bell Pottinger co-founder Tim Bell is. Drawing on extensive interviews conducted with Bell not long before he died last August, the film becomes a curious sort of critical tribute to this London-born self-made adman turned spin witch doctor.

Recounting Bell's colorful career, Influence offers an overview of his rise and fall, from the early work with advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi making commercials for jeans to his 1979 campaign for Margaret Thatcher ("Labour Isn't Working," punned the posters), which brought her to power and beyond.

Having gotten accustomed to being a power behind the throne, Bell built up a business that helped burnish the image of autocrats such as General Pinochet, throw the authorities off investigating the Saudi government for bribes connected to an arms deal and, in one of his few nobler efforts, drum up awareness of the fate of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko after he was fatally poisoned with radioactive tea in London.

Obviously unrepentant but still keen to burnish his image with a few partial truths before his death, Bell's interviews here are revealing as much for what he doesn't say as for those subjects with which he does engage. But the film doesn't always manage to tame the complexities of this labyrinthine story, which keeps setting sub-stories spinning like truth tops in all directions. In the end, there's a sense that Poplak and Neille have tracked down a huge number of the receipts, but the final accounting doesn't tell a story that's easy to follow for anyone not certified in the field.

Production companies: StoryScope, EyeSteelFilm
With: Tim Bell, Ron Leagas, John Hegarty, Phumzile van Damme, Nigel Oakes, Mark Hollingsworth, David Wynne-Morgan, Marianne Thamm, Sergio Bitar, Ascanio Cavallo, Pablo Zalaquett, José Antonio Kast Rist, Ralph Mathekga, FW de Klerk, Stanley Greenberg, Chester Crocker, Ketso Gordhan, Johann Kriegler, Andile Mngxitama, Alex Goldfarb, Paul Bell, Meirion Jones, Haider Jraidan, Joel Harding, Kirsten Fontenrose, Francis Ingham
Director-screenwriters: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille
Producers: Bob Moore, Neil Brandt
Executive producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross, Thandi Davids
Cinematographers: Glauco Bermudez, Mark O Fearghail
Music: Florencia di Concillio
Editor: Ryan Mullins
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Cinetic Media

105 minutes