'Our New President': Maxim Pozdorovkin on Creating an Entirely Untrue Documentary
“We wanted to make a film that bombards you with outright fabrication.”
With his found-footage documentary composed primarily of excerpts from Russian state news and DIY Youtube clips made by soviet Trump fans, Maxim Pozdorovkin has created a masterful, mindf*cking, mashup for the ages.
Focusing on Russia’s take on the recent American presidential elections—which had an almost absurd level of bias against Hillary Clinton and toward Donald Trump—some of the presented clips are hilarious in their blatant fabrication, and some of the bizarre, home-made odes to “our new president” are almost heartwarming. However, it doesn’t take long for this assault of misinformation to feel insidious, particularly when shown against the backdrop of the takeover of all media by the Russian government.
Poking at the Russian establishment is not new for Pozdorovkin. The Brooklyn-based, Russian-born director made his name with Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, about the trials of the rebellious, guitar-wielding, balaclava-clad thorns in Putin’s side. This time, the film’s social critique is aimed squarely at Russia’s state-run media. In one particularly jaw-dropping clip, the Putin-appointed head of the Russian news agencies tells the journalists working under him that truth and facts are things of the past, and it will no longer be primary factors in their reporting.
Our New President is an important entry in the canon of found-footage films in that it does what the best of them do: reflects on a specific moment in time by holding a “crooked mirror” up to society at large and showing us the more fundamental truths that emerge out of propagandistic lies.
Pozdorovkin and co-editor Matvey Kulakov’s achievements were recognized with a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing at the festival. No Film School sat down with the filmmaker the day after his world premiere to discuss the mechanics of putting the material together, the threat he may face for making this project, the “radical simplicity” of a found footage film, and more.
NFS: You're a Russian-born filmmaker and this film is almost entirely in Russian, but it's really about America. What was the reaction of the mainly American crowd here at Sundance?
Pozdorovkin: Our initial idea was to make a film entirely out of factual television news without a single true statement in it. Whether it was possible to just construct the narrative about the American election through this material and then look at the way that that material was received and regurgitated across the internet. We didn't know what would happen, so we just had a principle in place we were developing.
One of the thrilling things I've been very happy about (and I didn't even anticipate this) is that so many people have said that it's made them much more critical about their own news "diet" and the way our media works.
I think the reason for that is that the film is a distillation of propaganda and as such it becomes more intense. If a person's watching something like news in Russia, it's not as crazy as this movie makes it out to be. Obviously, I'm cherry-picking the best and the most flagrant moments, but the idea is that when you're dealing with this as a viewer all the time, it's not necessarily an easy experience but you understand the levers of the visual rhetoric of propaganda at large and you notice it in your own experience. It has a little bit of this crooked mirror—but still a mirror.
"We were looking specifically for material that would have some bit of that disinformation regurgitated or reinterpreted."
NFS: Right. The film contains so much Russian propaganda but then we have, to your point, our own American media to contend with. Since you've experienced both cultures and both news cycles, how do you think the Russian propaganda machine lines up to our own?
Pozdorovkin: I get this question a lot and the question usually takes the form of "Can you make the same movie out of Fox News?" Out of Fox News, probably not. It's not as extreme. The fabrication isn't as flagrant. While there's many sins that can be laid at Fox News's doorstep, it's not as extreme and one of the reasons is very simple. In Russia, the Kremlin does have pretty much a monopoly on news coverage, or at least on all the major channels. There's a vertical power and they give the general command about how certain events or certain people should be presented.
In Western media, there's a lot of abuse of journalistic standards or evidentiary standards for the sake of celebrity sensationalism and here, it's using the same tendencies but taking them into a logical endpoint, which is outright fabrication. We wanted to make a film that bombards you with this to see what it feels like when you've spent an hour and 20 minutes being the recipient of this material.
NFS: That also begs the question of why you're putting YouTube clips on equal footing with this “news footage.”
Pozdorovkin: I think that that was one of the founding organizational principles of the movie. Russia makes an interesting case study because the Russian people [on Youtube clips] in the movie have no firsthand experience of America or American politics. Essentially, all their information comes from television.
When we were looking for material, we were looking specifically for material that would have some bit of that disinformation regurgitated or reinterpreted. I think that it was always about the give and take. About the news diet and its uptake and its recirculation, and that's ultimately what connects to also the issue of social media trolls because one of the ways in which propaganda has evolved, as the film shows, is by taking media that was produced by a television channel, some 20th century propaganda and then learning to re-shovel it around re-circulate it around the internet, and exploit algorithms for purposes of getting this disinformation out there.
“Some stations we reached out to that they wouldn't even be able to license the material because they themselves steal it.”
NFS: How you got your hands on all the material in the film? What sources did it come from?
Pozdorovkin: It was just as broad as you can really imagine in terms of sourcing. There's historical archives. Weird Siberian science archives for, let's say the mummy sequence when the mummy was dug up. There's local news archives. There's historical archives. There's YouTube. There's the channels themselves that some of them make their stuff available in good quality. Others not. Some we reached out to and a lot of them said that they wouldn't even be able to license the material because they themselves steal it.
NFS: What about the footage that appears to be shot with someone's cell phone camera from inside the Russian news station footage?
Pozdorovkin: That specific piece of footage is really incredible. What happened was, as a backstory, there was a consolidation of Russian media in 2013 where our main character Dmitry Kiselyov, who’s like a Sean Hannity type of Russian news and is the most popular news anchor on television, was put in charge of what is effectively the Russian versions of Associated Press and Reuters and everything else.
The TV channels have long followed the party line and the Kremlin line, but the news agencies were much more independent and they were actually okay to work with. I licensed a lot of footage for Pussy Riot from their trial from what became Russia Today, and we were finishing the contract for this right as Kiselyov was appointed as the head. We were worried that it would be shut down and I know that people who tried to get the same footage months afterward were denied.
He was brought in and I know that a lot of the people that worked there were absolutely horrified at this. When he came in to explain the law of the land, one of the workers there filmed it and then let us use it.
NFS: That clip is one that's really stuck with me. It's astonishing. Kiselyov basically says, "I used to believe in journalistic ethics too but that's a thing of the past."
Pozdorovkin: Yes. "I've evolved."
NFS: In terms of editing all of this various media, how did your process begin?
Pozdorovkin: I edited the film with Matvey Kulakov. Last December, so about 13 months ago, he came back from Moscow from visiting his mom right after Trump had won and there was very, very little in the way of Russia in the American news. Later, it really became a dominant story, but at the time it wasn't, and Matvey said "Everyone in Russia's very excited about Trump winning. Everyone keeps calling him 'our new president.'"
We just started to dig and to create a database that could capture what is this phenomenon, where are they getting their information, what are they actually thinking about Trump? We started building it from that and went from there.
“There's a certain kind of radical simplicity and streamlining that happens when you make a found footage film.”
NFS: Structurally, it seems that you had a pretty complicated task. How did you and your editor work together to create a structure?
Pozdorovkin: I think that we knew that because the material is mostly found footage, the hardest thing is how the hell do you make it watchable? How do you structure it? We knew from the beginning we wanted it to be basically chronological with maybe just a few historical detours but follow [the period] from the sabotaging of Hillary and her candidacy to Trump's first year in office.
There's a certain kind of radical simplicity and streamlining that happens when you make a found footage film because that question of how is this watchable, and how do you get your voice into the material, just becomes the only question. There's no making of six-hour rough cuts or anything else. You make an 80-minute film and then you just keep on re-editing and making a better 80-minute film.
It just becomes this insane almost chess puzzle where you're moving all these pieces around and finding resonances and finding potential connections and essentially discovering potentialities that exist in the material to begin with and then just building it.
We basically edited this movie for about 55 weeks straight. Then, even on top of that, me and my editor also did the music for the movie. That seemed necessary because, in a found footage film, you take all the authorial control wherever you can get it precisely because you don't have it everywhere. It's like playing basketball with your hand tied behind your back. That was important. We knew that sound was going to be very important and so it just evolved naturally. My editor and I play in a band together.
NFS: What's your actual collaborative process? Do you look at everything together? Do you split it up?
Pozdorovkin: We have a group of about 10 people in our office all working on it. Finding it, digging it, assembling it, categorizing all the disinformation and causing themselves semi-permanent brain damage in the process.
The film started as a short which we made for Field of Vision [watch below] which was just about Trump's victory, so we had that and then when we started working on the short as more and more revelations kept on coming out about the Russia stuff and we ourselves were discovering so much of these fake, YouTube, plausibly newsy channels that were re-circulating a lot of the stuff that Russia Today was putting out or other Russian channels were putting out.
Pozdorovkin: I think I knew the general structure but we didn't know what was going to happen. We had no idea what the first year of Trump-Russia relationship would be like. We just followed it as it happened and then, along the way, tried to find material that would work.
Then, there's a certain second-level narrative which is much more about the history of the Russian media and the way it functions now and its effect on the people, and that's what the film's really about. In a way the story of Trump is a MacGuffin through which to investigate media practices and propaganda today.
NFS: It almost brings me back to my first question. The film is very Russian but it could be anywhere really right now.
Pozdorovkin: I think a lot of Russian TV channels learned some of these tricks from Western cable news and infotainment, except that they're in a position where they're not going to get in trouble and they're told to push this material in the direction of blatant fabrication. That's what blows your mind up a little bit is the extent to which it's at. That's why I thought it was important.
Our initial principle was "Not a single fact." We had to weigh things where there's a little bit of truth but then a whole lot of bullshit after it. Sometimes we have these little packages, but for the most part, that was the principle. It was almost like an experiment in a sense. Is this possible?
You made a great point earlier specifically by singling out logic because one of the selecting principles was precisely picking people who—other than a few things that were just really funny—but who in addition to just regurgitating a piece of disinformation also took some of that logic and you could tell that their logic was taken from what they got on television, from the absolutely bonkers interpreted beliefs, like "You have once again proven that a woman cannot be president."
NFS: Among your contacts in Russia, what's their perception of their own media?
Pozdorovkin: Largely that's a generational issue. Younger people in Russia, they know that this is propaganda and they identify "We don't turn on the television." That's definitely a growing movement.
For a person who actually believes that Hillary and her conspirators have murdered several people and that she has Tourette's and that she's an avid cocaine user and all these other things, what this film feels like to them is that they still get it, again, because here it's a little bit of a reductio ad absurdum film.
In other words, it's such a distillation of all these things that are happening that hopefully the extremes to which we go to even force those people to realize how ridiculous it is. When you're watching a normal two hour broadcast of Russian news, then these things are peppered in and masked in various ways so overall it seems more okay. Our gambit is that by distilling it and making it extreme and intense in a certain way, that the absurdity of it starts to come through.
NFS: Now that you have a canon of films, what's your reputation in Russia?
Pozdorovkin: I guess it's problematic because we had issues screening the Pussy Riot film there but it's hard to say. I don't know.
NFS: Let me put it another way. Do you feel threatened at all, or that you could move freely there?
Pozdorovkin: I think the threat always exists. I think that authoritarian places and governments tend to be unsystematic in the way that they punish and the way that they crackdown, so it's a little bit of a crapshoot and I just feel like I've had that in my life for a while now as a potential thing. I think you just accept and learn to live with it, just like the way of people who work in Russia. They have it much worse and have to live with it that one day something might happen and unfortunate things would happen to you. That's where being superstitious is very helpful.
“Your job is to dislike your movie longer than anybody else does.”
NFS: What advice would you have for someone embarking on a found footage film?
Pozdorovkin: I think my general advice to filmmakers is always the same: Be stubborn, and your job is to dislike your movie longer than anybody else does.
NFS: That's a very Russian take.
Pozdorovkin: I think it's true, it's just you shift your dislike to smaller and smaller things. Once the big story things are worked out, you move your dislike to something else and then you get it to a point of everyone else liking it and in the corner you're like, "Oh, that piece of graphic looks incorrect."
With found footage, I think that found footage films are becoming so much more done because all the current historic figures and celebrities have lived for about 20 or 30 years where a lot of their life has been documented with various footage. More and more films come out that essentially reclaim that material. I think it's becoming much more of a dominant thing for obvious technical reasons in documentary, and I would advise people who work in it to just immerse themselves in the history of found footage filmmaking, especially experimental, because there's so much of that stuff that doesn't get watched.
There's this long history of female found footage filmmakers, like Esfir Shub in Russia made the very first found footage feature film called The Fall of The Romanov Dynasty.
NFS: I really appreciate you bringing up the history of female filmmakers using found footage. It’s also true in the art world.
Pozdorovkin: Historically, that was the case because there's so many women editors, because the studio bosses saw a correlation between sewing and editing. That was a big thing for why, especially in the very early days of cinema, there's so many female editors.
There's also a film that I absolutely love by an American filmmaker named Ken Jacobs called Star Spangled to Death, which is an eight-hour montage film of just basically tacitly racist programming, like educational programs for African Americans that were done in the '60s. Stuff that's not openly racist but the hints are there. It has a similar tactic as this film when you start to watch it except that it's eight hours. In that, you start to watch it and it's funny at first but then an hour into it just becomes horrifying.
Also, think that found footage opens up the possibility to make things that aren't earnest, that tell a story in a way that could be ironic, that forces people to work in a slightly different way. A tendency in documentary is that, whereas fiction films tend to have their narration or a voice of the film can be inflected and subjective in all sorts of ways and that's part of what we love about it, documentaries—even very artful ones that I very much like—almost all of them tend to be very earnest.
They tell a story. "I'm learning this and you tell me this," and that's the contract between the doc director and the viewer. I think that with found footage—precisely because you're taking a piece of footage and you're using it in any way other than its intended use—you almost tell the story through negation and that's fascinating because it engages people in a totally different way. In a way it's more challenging but to my mind, that's a plus.
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