'Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies': Film Review

Courtesy of Hot Docs Festival
Thought-provoking, if scattershot.

Larry Weinstein's documentary examines the connections between propaganda and art.

Propaganda has a broad definition, and it's even more broadly defined in Larry Weinstein's documentary examining the subject. Feeling like an entire semester's worth of university lectures condensed into a densely packaged 90 minutes, Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is consistently interesting but scattershot. The film, which recently received its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs, includes so many disparate themes and ideas that it seems to forget the points it's trying to make.

The documentary's timing is hardly accidental. "This film is a cautionary tale and a call for action at a precarious point in our history," we're informed early on via a solemn voiceover. The tone, however, is more reflective than hysterical, examining the history of propaganda largely through the prism of art. Early examples include ancient cave paintings of handprints made by Neanderthals some 65,000 years ago, and statues and coins depicting Alexander the Great that were used to spread his reputation in an era long before video, let alone twitter.

The doc includes more contemporary examples, stretching its arguments to include some highly interesting anecdotes. One segment is devoted to Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who was sitting in a bar in his native country when Che Guevara happened to drop in (he was killing time between airplane flights). Fitzpatrick, a Marxist and unabashed fan of the Cuban revolutionary, went on to create the iconic poster of Che, for which he receives no royalties.

Also profiled are such figures as Ai Weiwei, who suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese government because of his anti-authoritarian artworks; Shepard Fairey, who created the famous "Hope" graphic featuring Barack Obama's face in shades of red, white and blue; Kent Monkman, who inserts indigenous characters into classic European and American paintings; and photographer and self-proclaimed "provocateur" Tyler Shields, whose photo of Kathy Griffin holding up a bloody mask of Donald Trump's head nearly ended the comedian's career.

The argument that all art is propaganda seems a bit of a stretch. The doc is on safer, if more familiar ground, examining such subjects as the Nazi propaganda machine, including Leni Riefenstahl's classic film Triumph of the Will, and the Catholic Church, described as "the most effective propaganda organization on Earth." A Catholic priest offers a refreshing acknowledgment of the Church's conscious image-making, saying "I know what I'm doing" when he leads a service enhanced by beautiful music and gorgeous architecture. "If we're wrong, at least it was innocent manipulation," he comments.

Naturally, the current presidential administration gets excoriated, via clips of such things as Kellyanne Conway talking about "alternate facts," Rudy Giuliani claiming "truth isn't truth," and Donald Trump saying virtually anything.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies ultimately suffers from its hodgepodge approach that makes you think that the filmmaker was merely throwing things onscreen to see what sticks. Segments devoted to New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt and 104-year-old actor Norman Lloyd (the latter talking about his friendship with Charlie Chaplin and the film The Great Dictator) are enjoyable but seem beside the point. By the time the doc ends, your head is reeling with so much information that you feel you've been subjected to propaganda yourself.

Production companies: Hawkeye Pictures, Taglicht Media
Director: Larry Weinstein
Screenwriters: David Mortin, Andrew Edmonds
Producers: Aeschylus Poulos, Bernd Wilting, Sonya Di Rienzo, Matthias von der Heide
Executive producers: Jane Jankovic, Wolfgang Bergmann, Natasha Negrea, Martin Pieper, Michael Robson, Neil Tabatznik
Director of photography: John Minh Tran
Editor: David New
Composers: Raffael Seyfried, Andreas Schafer
Venue: Hot Docs

90 minutes