'Our New President': Film Review | Sundance 2018
Composed entirely from footage drawn from Russia's state-sponsored propaganda machine and amateur YouTube clips, Maxim Pozdorovkin's documentary explains why the Russians are proud to call Donald Trump 'Our New President.'
According to assorted data nerds, political pundits and writers of reportage features in the ever-hopeful liberal media, Donald Trump's base appears to be shrinking in America's rural heartlands and rust belt zones. Luckily for the current White House occupant, the documentary Our New President suggests that at least the Russians are still standing staunchly by their man. Indeed, many seen here are proud to brag that it was their nation's efforts that got him elected.
Directed by New York-based Maxim Pozdorovkin, whose earlier doc Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer won a prize at Sundance in 2013, this impishly assembled collage film draws entirely on archive footage, YouTube clips and fair-use-sanctioned snatches from State-owned TV channels to show how Vladimir Putin, professional propagandists and the average Russian Trump fan in the street view the key players in the 2016 election.
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. Nevertheless, this is still an impressively assembled work, edited with brio by Pozdorovkin and Matvey Kulakov. Moreover, even the most hardened news junkies, accustomed by now to the near-daily drip-feed of crass, offensive utterances from Trump and his more troglodyte American supporters, may gasp at the open misogyny, racism and sheer stupidity on display here from some citizens of the steppes. It's not all positive, however — a TV palm reader traces a line on Trump's unusually short thumb, as he points out, indicating a lack of higher cognitive ability.
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.
Explanatory title cards are sporadically deployed to fill in background or explain who key figures are, such as news anchor/executive and Russia's answer to Sean Hannity, Dmitry Kiselyov, or sinister Bond villainess-in-training Margarita Simonyan, the head of international cable network RT. But outside these occasional bursts of onscreen text as well as unnecessary, quasi-academic "chapter" headings, Pozdorovkin lets the footage effectively speak for itself or at least through juxtaposition, so that a rough narrative shape starts to emerge.
The aforementioned framing device focuses on Hillary Clinton's 1997 day trip during a state visit when she was still First Lady to see the mummified corpse of a Siberian "princess" that archeologists had recently uncovered. According to one Russian conspiracy theory, this encounter may have cursed Clinton, leading to the spasms, fainting fits and "signs of dementia" that she supposedly demonstrated many years later when she was on the 2016 campaign trail. Regardless of her state of health, it's clear that Russian media, in line with Putin, considered her policies threatening and ran her down relentlessly through its various channels.
Trump isn't even mentioned or seen onscreen until about 15 or 20 minutes into the doc, and pretty much right off the bat he's seen as a figure of fun, a flunky for Putin, but at least welcome proof according to one YouTuber that "a women can never be made president." Elsewhere, tow-headed Slavic kids are seen celebrating his victory over Clinton, while various sweaty men with poor camerawork skills record themselves drinking vodka toasts to him or performing self-penned folky tributes on accordions and guitars. The best song by some distance, possibly one composed with more irony than Pozdorovkin would allow, is a tribute to the troll farms of St. Petersburg.
It's a tough call which is more horrifying, these amateur paeans to the man who lost the popular vote but still won the race, or the nakedly, unabashedly partisan proclamations and misinformation from the state media. Either way, without taking any particular stand on whether the Russians decisively swung the result of the 2016 election or just nudged it along, the film makes it clear just how insidious, relentless and brazen their propaganda effort was, seeding memes that metastasized virulently throughout the world.
Pozdorovkin also includes sizable chunks of footage of that fateful black-tie dinner to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of RT, at which former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was seated between Simonyan and Putin, like a crew-cut slab of meat-headed greed between two slices of rich black rye. It's fascinating to see the body language in more detail than news reports usually show, although it's at points like this where the director's hands-off, low-editorial approach may be problematic for some, especially for those not up-to-speed with the facts of the ongoing Trump-Russia scandal.
All the same, the musical underlay by the Presidential Band helps to guide viewers' understanding of what we see here, separating what is merely ridiculous from what is actively sinister.
Production companies: Impact Partners, Third Party Film
Director: Maxim Pozdorovkin
Producers: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Joe Bender, Charlotte Cook
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jim Swartz, Nina Fialkow
Archival producers: Antonina Golikova, Sierra Pettengill, Olga Loginova
Editor: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Matvey Kulakov
Music: The Presidential Band, Ivan Markovsky
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition)