What Is Reality? Pozdorovkin’s Vertiginous Nightmare Of Subjective Journalism
After a year since the commencement of the Trump presidency, its critics and supporters vary in temperament and demographics, however one consistently divisive topic is the administration’s suspected collusion with the Russian government during the 2016 election. Maxim Pozdorovkin’s latest in a series of documentary features set in his homeland of Russia (The Notorious Mr. Bout, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) is not a dive into the validity of these accusations nor necessarily a commentary on them, but the strong hints at scandal provide the film’s contextual foundation. Pozdorovkin utilizes a trove of appropriated footage to paint a vivid and unnerving picture of Donald Trump’s cult of personality in Russia, in turn spotlighting some of the most invasive propaganda of the modern era. Our New President deconstructs the dizzying fever dream of modern journalism where “objectivity is a myth” in a sensory assault as outlandish as the material it wordlessly mocks and condemns.
Commencing with Russian news footage detailing an odd story in 1997 with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton attending an exhibit of a recently exhumed mummy of a reported warrior princess, it gives way to a foreboding quote by wary science-fiction giant Philip K. Dick, warning of fake humans creating fake realities. The story of the princess serves as the backbone of numerous false reports detailing Clinton’s medical ailments during the 2016 election cycle, as if her visit incurred a wrathful curse. This ludicrous opening immediately sets the tone for the extensive film-long montage of archival news reports, contemporary Kremlin-controlled programming, investigative documents, and personal videos from a swath of Russian citizens, providing the fullest possible portrait of the tactics and history of Vladimir Putin’s state-run multimedia. This fall of independent journalism to thinly-veiled propaganda is the fuel for subjective ideals supporting state myths (including astrology as a legitimate science) as the country’s only truths, and the validation of nationalist collectives undermining all opponents to that narrative.
Matvey Kulakov and Pozdorovkin’s editing almost defies description with its cacophony of sights and sounds, distorting the archived material at every turn. This headache-inducing experience evokes a nauseous incredulity that exponentially increases as the 77-minute runtime sprints along. But, with this disorienting presentation of such blatant mass media manipulation, the possibilities of the film’s own artificial reality constantly arises; it is a cinematic question mark where truth is almost a nonexistent idea. Nothing can be trusted, though nothing can be dismissed, and only paranoia and anxiety remain.
Warped classical songs and original music by The Presidential Band meshing with Kulakov’s immersive sound design induces a subconscious auditory mania, lingering uncomfortably in the recesses of our minds, providing even further discombobulation than thought possible. The concluding twenty-or-so minutes of topics that Pozdorovkin addresses (bringing the film to the present day) are less developed and are significantly rushed compared to the preceding hour of extensive research, losing the considerable amount of steam built to that point. Though the end still reinforces disturbing implications of personal subjectivity in journalism (only serving the needs of the state) defining the truth, it resonates as premature and incomplete.
Pozdorovkin has built his career as a investigative provocator documenting subjects with sizeable political force. This project has all of the same sociopolitical intensity and cultural awareness, though it indicts not only the Russian state but the slow death of journalistic integrity on the international stage. It is frustrating, bewildering and utterly effective, raising far more questions than answers. Though it leaves it to the world-at-large to find solutions, Our New President unnerves as it showcases how these serious issues continue to mount in scale and encroachment.
Reviewed on January 26th at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Documentary Competition. 77 Minutes
★★★½ / ☆☆☆☆☆