SA documentary on Bell Pottinger propaganda war selected for Sundance Festival
15 January 2020
Director of photography Glauco Bermudez and directors Richard Poplak and Diana Neille filming the Swords of Qādisīyah in the Green Zone, Baghdad.
From around 15,000 entries submitted to the Sundance Film Festival this year, a South African-made documentary has been selected to compete in the World Cinema Documentary Competition in January 2020.
While other documentaries about SA by international filmmakers have made their way to the festival before, South African directors will be competing in the prestigious competition for the first time.
Directed by Diana Neille and Richard Poplak, Influence follows the rise and fall of the London-based public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, that became infamous for its meddling in political and media landscapes in countries across the world, including SA.
The two directors hope the film will be a reminder of the dangers that lurk within the post-truth era, in which industry players like Bell Pottinger use digital tools to wage propaganda wars and become fundamental in undermining democracy.
Bell Pottinger’s downfall came in September 2017, months after South African journalists exposed how the company had engineered a racially divisive PR campaign designed to benefit the now notorious Gupta family, along with their alleged major beneficiary, former president, Jacob Zuma.
With unrelenting pressure from local and international media, civil society, politicians and the South African public, the company was forced to close its doors.
“After following the story deep into the roots of modern geopolitical spin-doctoring, we discovered the fingerprints of Bell Pottinger’s founder, Lord Timothy Bell, on many of the world’s most formative political campaigns,” said Neille, who said the film follows not only the company’s meddling in South Africa, but in countries across the globe.
“We felt that if our viewers comprehensively travelled the Bell Pottinger journey since the 1970s, we would end up telling the story of influence and how it helped establish what we now call the post-truth era. It’s the context in which so many democracies around the world are now floundering.”
On Thursday, it was announced that Influence had been selected as an in-competition candidate at the Sundance Film Festival, screened alongside 12 other international documentaries to be judged in a variety of prize categories.
Neille said the deadline to submit films for the festival was on October 6, which meant taking a risk by sending a cut of the film she said “could have been improved”.
“It’s never as ready as you want it. Two weeks later we had an even better draft, but we’re so grateful that the coordinators and programmers (at Sundance) could see the potential in the film and accepted it,” she said.
“We’re blown away by this opportunity to be on such a prestigious international platform, representing our country,” she said.
As a Canadian/South African co-production, the film’s broadcast rights are currently held by French channel Arte, the Documentary Channel in Canada and eTV in South Africa. Plans for a local screening of the film are still underway, following its premier at the Sundance Film Festival.