In Hamlet the Black Prince instructs the actors to keep the mirror up to nature. In Shakespeare's age this advice sounded fresh, innovative and timely, yet nowadays it is getting harder and harder for the independent journalists and artists to stay objective and get their message across to the audience unmutilated by the gear wheels of the ideological machine. The Sundance Film Festival is among the few rare oases of the freedom of speech. No wonder, that this year it has become the springboard for Maxim Pozdorovkin's controversial documentary Our New President (18 January 2018, USA). The most striking feature of the film is, of course, the bold, simplistic and dynamic editing style, for which the film has received its Sundance Film Festival Award. This postmodern digital media collage is a powerful metaphor that embodies the fragmentary, allusive character of modern culture and explores the connection between fact and fiction and the influence of the propaganda mechanism upon the mass consciousness revealed through digital media content creation.
Pozdorovkin's documentary is a striking example of a montage technique that carries profound meaning per se. Postmodern philosophy has taught us that we are living in the world composed of texts, or, more precisely, of quotes. Any new object d'art is created from elements of earlier influences. The whole universe is a collage. This postmodern attitude is explicated in Our New President which is completely composed from quotes borrowed from the leading Russian news channels and also videos created by a variety of Russian bloggers. The presence of any kind of the authorial consciousness is perceptible only through the initial caption telling the viewer that 86 percent of Russian citizens receive information from the network television. But the objective character of the video mosaic created by Pozdorovkin is only an illusion. The way the clips are edited completely shapes the reception of the content. This documentary is a metaphoric exploration of the way modern media narratives only seem to be objective, but in fact are collages meticulously glued together by the ideological message they are created to transmit.
There are two main strategies that the director is using to organize the film so that it had the most profound impact upon the viewer. First, he alternates the videos made by amateur bloggers and those broadcast by the official TV channels. The former are often openly absurd, which does not strike the viewer as something out of the ordinary - we are all used to the eccentricities of the modern You-tube stars. But when the official news fragments turn out to be no less absurd, illogical and impossible to digest, the similarity between the two cannot but attract the viewer's attention as something that is just not supposed to be there. For example, videos made by a young boy congratulating Trump on his being elected President and an old man playing the accordion and singing a song devoted to Trump are perceived by the audience as being "normally weird." But when these videos are followed by a story about renaming one of Ryazan's streets, which was earlier called in honor of Donald Trump and also by a report about scientists having discovered that Trump is a descendent of the founder of the Russian state, the juxtaposition and the comparison cannot but hint at the fact that the content created by the official media is no less dubious and preposterous than the blogger's subjective visual narratives. The second strategy is the careful construction of the internal logics of the film. Pozdorovkin starts with less controversial, seemingly innocent absurdities that concern the internal social reality of Russia and proceeds to the issues heatedly discussed worldwide, such as Trump's possible assassination, Obama's support of the LGBT community, Trump's lack of tolerance, anti-Trump protests, secret relationship between Trump and Putin, etc. Thus, Pozdorovkin gradually builds up the tension until all of a sudden, at the very end of the film he abruptly inverts the subject by saying that Trump's being "our President" has probably been an early misjudgment. In this way, the director shows how fragments and pieces taken out of context can be used to construct a coherent and cohesive narrative that looks fully persuasive, and how this media artifact can be easily and quickly deconstructed within a couple of minutes.
Another effective strategy that the director employs to create a seminal cultural product is an extensive usage of stereotypes. For example, in the very first shots of the film a man disguised as Trump is seen interacting with Russian citizens in the streets of a snow-covered city. Snow has always been a symbol a Russia with its "eternal" winter. The man in the Trump-like mask is giving some coins to a poorly dressed beggar in the street and is later seen giving another marginal element a bottle of vodka, which has also always been an iconic stereotypical attribute of Russia. The gloomy, primitive, degenerate faces of the drunkards represent the stereotypical vision of an average Russian voter, whose loyalty politicians can easily gain by throwing him a little money and keeping him drunk and amorphous.
Apart from showing stereotypical images of Russians as squalid drunkards with a bottle of vodka and an accordion, Pozdorovkin also engages the stereotypes that are supposed to reflect the American way of life. Thus, in one of the video fragments a young tattood man is rapping about the American president and his face is at times substituted for Trump's face. The young man is surrounded by half-dressed women dancing in the overtly sexual manner. To most Russians, this video would be a precise representation of the modern American culture. Other issues that in the eyes of an average Russian citizen would be associated with the USA are the fight for women's rights and against the discrimination of the LGBT community. Russia is famous for its conservative attitude to these issues and in the film bloggers can be seen expressing extreme views on them ardently supporting Trump's notoriously intolerant stand. This approach cannot but seem quite alarming for the Americans, as it allows to look at the tensions surrounding the election of Trump from an outside perspective, and, what is more, a perspective of a content creator with at best questionable values.
In the best Shakespearean traditions, Pozdorovkin consistently juxtaposes the comic and the unsettling. A blogger with an aluminium foil mask on his face looks both hilarious and scary. A little boy and an old man with an accordion congratulating Trump on becoming President look both funny and unsettling. In this game of contrasts music is playing a very powerful role. When in one of the later scenes "anti-Trump protesters" are shown smashing the shop windows, setting cars on fire and fighting with the police, the footage is accompanied by cheerful, playful, ironic music that makes the whole action look like a cheap comedy, while people on the screen seem to be mere marionette dancing a scary and vile dance to somebody else's tune. This parallel is especially effective in the context of the news fragment stating that people were paid to participate in the protests. The contrast that Maxim Pozdorovkin and Matvey Kulakov are using adds even more tension to the already dynamic editing and also highlights the symbolic subtext.
Our New President is not a usual film made to be enjoyed. It is rather a cunning cinematographic provocation the main aim of which is to unsettle, shock, scandalize - in short, to make the spectators, accustomed to syrupy, pinkish treacle, think and feel strongly, to look at the world we are living in as a matrix operated by the huge and mighty ideological machine, that creates our reality from carefully selected and patched together quotes. As such, it has certainly succeeded.
Frank, Scott. Dead again. Paramount, 1991.
Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." Complete Works, Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, pp. 1079-1126.
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