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It’s a heady, headlong foray into the way humans have been pushing politics even before they had a word for it
Like a doc about gluttony, Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies bites off more than it can chew. The fascinating film examines propaganda both up-to-the-minute (Donald Trump), recent (Barack Obama), historic (Adolf Hitler), classic-historic (Alexander the Great) and prehistoric; the Neanderthal who left hand prints on a cave in Spain, and who I’m going to call Tal Neander.
It’s a heady, headlong foray into the way humans have been pushing politics even before they had a word for it, featuring quotations from George Orwell, Winston Churchill and Mao Zedong, and interviews with artists, philosophers, cartoonists and journalists. But director Larry Weinstein rushes from one topic and talking head to the next, leaving this breathless viewer convinced that the film’s 93 minutes could have been stretched into six or eight half-hour chapters.
It’s still worth a watch, as we meet Jim Fitzpatrick (he created the famous image of Che Guevara, silk-screened on a million T-shirts); Shepard Fairey (designer of Obama’s Hope poster); Kent Monkman (a Cree artist whose revisionist paintings show Mounties doing despicable things to First Nations people); and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese activist and artist who discusses Mao’s desire to control “not only the gun but the pen.”
The film may also have you reconsidering the scope of propaganda in your own life. Fairey makes a fair point that not all propaganda is evil, and refers to his Hope poster (it originally said Progress) as “socially responsible propaganda.” And fellow filmmaker Astra Taylor (her films include What Is Democracy? ) notes that we tend to label propaganda as something that other people consume. But social norms such as sexual roles and clichés can be buttressed by propaganda in the form of advertising and mainstream entertainment.
The film is a useful reminder in these media-saturated times that there exist levels of information less obvious and more insidious than what we flippantly refer to as “fake news.” As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes, there is “an active part of oneself that can determinedly not know what one knows. Propaganda is based on how you stop yourself knowing things.” The Art of Selling Lies is a wake-up call, reminding us how to know.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019