Film is uniquely suited to act as a vehicle of propaganda; its combination of visual and audio storytelling makes it effective for audiences of different ages and literacy levels. Propaganda is about creating an illusion and manipulating the truth, and in this regard film is fundamentally the same. Film is a series of flat images giving the illusion of depth, movement, and – most importantly – life. With the release of Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass this month, it is timely to reflect on the relationship film has to propaganda and more broadly film’s ability to justly depict human experience.
Any film manipulates its audience to provoke emotions and reactions; the trick of film is of course that you forget the eye of the camera. There is a part of us that believes the reality of what we see regardless of whether it is fiction or not. That said, we don’t tend to think of fiction film when we think of propaganda: most people will probably think of the Nazis and their filmmakers, such as Leni Reifenstahl.
Like most things they did, propaganda wasn’t invented by the Nazis – but they were big fans of it. Deception in the presentation of facts or narratives has been around as long as people have wanted to push agendas. Roman accounts of non-Roman civilisations are considered to probably be propagandic in nature. With each new technology – theatre, painting, and the printing press – propaganda found a new medium in which to spread. It was no different when film emerged as its own medium.
In many countries, the government was directly involved in the foundations of broadcasting – first on radio, and later in newsreels. Through this state support had its benefits, it inevitably meant that the broadcast content was sympathetic to those in power. Radio and newsreels were used for manipulating public opinion in World War One as a way of stoking pride, nationalism, and morale while the war dragged on. The line between truth and fiction were blurred in these films; though the depicted real events some sequences were staged. Though the staged sequences were probably practical solutions to gaps in these films stories, the fact that they were played as reality, that they were filmed to create a story even is a betrayal of trust. Film was just one medium the British government employed in a wider campaign which was apparently quite effective. Indeed there was one German Soldier on whom the British propaganda had a strong impact: Adolf Hitler.
Hitler spends two chapters of Mein Kampf dissecting the importance and power of propaganda. He placed a lot of importance on propaganda’s reach, writing, ‘all propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to’. Hitler’s Nazi government controlled all cinema, initially through tax incentives (creatively manipulated by filmmakers who did not want to make Nazi movies) then by direct dictatorial control. To make sure their message got to the most impressionable in society, the Nazi government ensured that all schools had film projectors.
Access to alternate viewpoints was very limited in Nazi Germany. People were only able to contrast the government issued media with their own experience: if their experiences didn’t differ from what was represented, they wouldn’t have felt much need to second-guess them. This is the main point of difference between propaganda in the twentieth century and propaganda today. Given the variety of perspectives accessible to audiences today, contemporary propaganda works just as much to contradict viewpoints and confuse the public, as it does appeal to sympathetic or manipulable viewers. Special interest groups cannot dominate the media the way a totalitarian government can. Instead, we live in a world of direct contradictions and ‘alternate facts’, in which anyone can make a movie.
Governments lost their grip on film production, feature films are less of a vehicle for propaganda. That said the half-life of some of the stereotypes, tropes, and values have been absorbed into mainstream fiction film. Take the infamous racist portrayal of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mickey Rooney’s make-up resembles the caricatures of Japanese people in World War Two. The character of Mr Yunioshi is an obvious stereotype played for laughs, but the ethnicities of villains is an ongoing trend in Hollywood. Depending on the era, villains have been overwhelmingly African-American, German, Russian, or Arabic. All of these oppositions have emerged from real-world historic contexts, while Hollywood being an American institution means that the American ‘good guys’ are film’s default protagonists.
However the same features that make film a good medium for dispersing propaganda also set up it well for countering it. A strange fact of fiction film is that it can be more honest than other mediums that purport to be non-fiction. For example films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon offered a different insight into the Vietnam War: instead of glorifying the American mission, they criticised it. They subvert the war movie tropes while still fitting in a cinematic tradition. They are counter-propaganda in a way; a reaction to the way war was being presented.
The war movie genre still revolves around the soldier’s story. This removes war from an everyday setting, as soldiers tend to leave their everyday lives’ behind. But for far too many people, war is everyday, there is no safe haven to retreat to, and it is these people that Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass is about. There is no protagonist – Donbass is a series of vignettes of life in the war-torn Donbass region of the Ukraine and flits between both the pro-EU and pro-Russia sides of the conflict.
Loznitsa’s style plays with the idea of truth; deliberately choosing a documentary aesthetic stating that is gives the film more impact and realness, making the audience feel closer to the story. Loznitsa also based many of the vingettes on actual footage he had seen on Youtube. This meta-level of truth is then complimented by the characters. The opening scene is actors getting ready in a trailer then being quickly rushed between buildings as bombs go off. It is later revealed that they were filming a fake-news story. This forces the audience to second guess their assumptions and begins the pattern of deceits and half-truths that the characters have to navigate. Donbass is messy; its wandering structure and lack of sign-posting is confusing. But this is not a criticism–it is a decision that puts the audience in a similar position of instability and anticipation to the characters in the film. Loznitsa wanted to show what happens to people living where conflict is normal that the ‘destruction and dehumanization’ makes ‘the human becomes an animal’, in short the effect of living in a world with such flexible notions of truth.