In my capsule review, I describe the found-footage documentary Propaganda (which screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center tomorrow at 5:30 PM and on Tuesday at 8:30 PM) as “a provocative thought experiment,” which is another way of saying I enjoyed reflecting on the movie more than I enjoyed watching it. Propaganda is presented as a North Korean “educational video” about the evils of western capitalist societies. Crude-looking and blunt in its narration, it contains no winks to the audience hinting that it’s a forgery. Since reviewing it, in fact, I’ve learned that when director Slavko Martinov first presented the movie on YouTube, millions of viewers were convinced that it was real.
Propaganda sure feels like a genuine diatribe, touching on all sorts of subjects with the same overloud outrage. It’s hard to tell whether Martinov really believes this stuff or whether he’s deliberately exaggerating his points for rhetorical effect. Some passages feel petty and unnecessary (takedowns of Tyra Banks and Quentin Tarantino as shills for the consumerist-imperialist regime); others feel like undigested paranoia (like the “revelations” concerning 9/11 and Israeli military policy). Yet there are moments that really turned my head, making me reconsider aspects of American life I usually take for granted. For instance, the movie argues (or is that “argues”?) that reality TV shows like The Bachelor are part of a plot to distract viewers from real-world injustices and promote the worship of money. I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy theory, but I value the implicit question of this passage: What values are being espoused by a program in which random people compete, in front of millions of strangers, for the affections of a rich man?
To cite a chapter title of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, Martinov is interested in the signs among us, analyzing how media effluvium (advertisements, infotainment) influence our basic worldview. Propaganda may be most unnerving, though, when it considers the people excluded from mainstream-media coverage. At one point, the movie’s fictional North Korean sociologist asks why are there so few TV news stories in America about the dozens of millions of homeless people living there. In another, he decries the lack of ordinary-looking women in advertisements and TV shows, claiming they’re deliberately excluded so that women feel bad about their looks and buy beauty products. These arguments are reductive, but deliberately so—Martinov dares you to refute them so that consider why our society functions the way it does.