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Film Reviews Look to Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies for insight, but warning: it will overwhelm you

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies asks the question: why are we so easily seduced by propaganda?

Courtesy of D Films

  • Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies
  • Directed by Larry Weinstein
  • Starring: David Walmsley, Ai Weiwei, Kent Monkman and Astra Taylor
  • Classification N/A; 92 minutes

rating

At some point in the past two years I realized there is a Donald Trump supporter on my Facebook friends list. Her posted content runs a gamut of conflicting expressions – inspirational quotes about compassion imposed on stock photos of beaches wedged between xenophobic memes making untrue and ahistorical statements. Although I’ve sent messages about her views, her page remains a cascade of disturbing fodder, averaging between zero and three likes per post. Her most recent meme is a picture of Melania Trump alongside the words, “If Melania is your ideal first lady, please like and share!” Underneath is a comment from a California-based nutritional coach: “It is so sad she does not get the publicity she deserves, she is way classier than any of the past first ladies!!” When I click the coach’s profile, I find petitions against Monsanto and fundraisers for melanoma research: evidence of an otherwise discerning individual.

I keep this woman on my friends list not as an exercise in abject repugnance, but to occasionally peer at how the other side lives. How do people get so twisted around in these gullies of astonishing prevarication?

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A new documentary from Canadian director Larry Weinstein attempts to lead us to an answer. Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies traces the origin and power of propaganda through a wide assemblage of art, politics, history and religion – 65,000-year-old hand stencils in Spain’s Cave of El Castillo, Nazi films, North Korea, Facebook, Christianity, Hitler, Stalin, the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Kathy Griffin holding a severed Trump head.

In an effort to chart the course of history’s past and present wrongs, Weinstein pulls from an immense range of malicious government and institutional influences. The result is not so much clarity or delineation as it is an overwhelming 90-minute barrage. This is not to suggest that the documentary’s narrative needed refinement. The magnitude of misinformation and the atrocities enabled by horrendous people with manipulative marketing prowess are far-reaching and leviathan in their potential. We should watch a documentary like this and feel overwhelmed.

New movies in theatres this week: The soulless Lion King, the fantastic Farewell and The Art of Self-Defense

The documentary traces the origin and power of propaganda through a wide assemblage of art, politics, history and religion.

Courtesy of D Films

The film somewhat deviously plays on the affective cajoling at the root of propaganda itself, veering a little too far into the fear-inducing implications of Orwellian references, sinister background music and a host of baritone voices telling us how doomed we are. In a documentary that so articulately unpacks the mass dangers of manipulation, it feels discordant to rely on fear tactics to maintain audience attention, even just to make a point.

Still, Propaganda provides needed insight during a time when so much of our information intake is traumatic, baffling and – like a stranger on Facebook suggesting Melania Trump is the smartest of history’s first ladies – wilfully delusional. (An especially confounding jolt occurs when a priest discusses the etymology of the word “propaganda” and connects its meaning to evangelism.)

“We allow ourselves to be manipulated by fictions,” says Weinstein, who narrates the film. "But how is it possible that our powers of reason have so often been overtaken by the irrational?”

It follows the history of the art of persuasion from the remote past up to our present, where we are bombarded by more propaganda than ever before.

Courtesy of D Films

It is admittedly too cavalier to watch footage of rallies in support of Trump and spiral into helplessness and outrage. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips explains in the film, “Great propaganda exploits your need to believe something and your craving for a magical form of empowerment.” Propaganda isn’t just about politics.

There is a tremendously powerful emotional force that drives the mentality of the malevolent – pawns of abomination who’ll feature in tomorrow’s documentaries, you can bet, the same way Nazi imagery shown today is meant to inspire regret. As Weinstein’s documentary affirms, a deliberate marshalling of fear and despair has once again brought society to a point of misguided division. Let’s hope looking back helps break the cycle.

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Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies opens July 19 in Toronto, July 26 in Vancouver.

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