Sundance doc ‘Influence’ tells of battle in modern information war
“Influence,” an entry in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, is set to screen at the following times and locations:
Wednesday, Jan. 29, 9 a.m., Temple Theatre
Friday, Jan. 31., 9:15 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema 2
Saturday, Feb. 1, 11:30 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 1
The client list of Lord Timothy Bell’s reputation management firm Bell Pottinger reads like a who’s who of morally dubious late 20th-century world players, from the would-be successor to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to the wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to the Bahraini regime.
But Bell, whose career is the subject of the film “Influence,” an entrant in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, disputes in the film charges of immorality, admitting instead to at most incidents of amorality.
The South African journalists Diana Neille and Richard Poplak said they decided to make the film after receiving a trove of nearly 200,000 emails linking the firm to a campaign to distract South African citizens from the corruption that mired President Jacob Zuma’s government.
“Maybe we should just (film) this for posterity,” Neille recalled thinking when they received the leak. “It was a super hot potato batch of emails.”
That instinct bore out, as Bell Pottinger collapsed after criticism that it had started a racist campaign in South Africa that turned deadly. The idea, Poplak said, was to turn the country toward its racial divisions and keep attention away from those who were stealing from the top.
“They were being paid 120,000 (pounds) a month to orchestrate this racially divisive campaign using terms to pit black people against white people,” said Poplak, who covered the issue as a journalist. “We had been getting cease-and-desist letters from them since February of that year. When we realized we had them semi on the run, we smelled blood.”
“Influence” includes interviews with Bell, who died in August, and tracks his work from early days working to elect former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to his globe-hopping forays into Africa, the Middle East and South America.
The filmmakers hope it spurs a conversation about the information people ingest and who makes it, as well as a renewed sense of civic engagement.
“As a citizen you have a responsibility to be vigilant about what you’re learning and where it’s coming from,” Neille said. “I’m really hoping this film will open a conversation and dialogue and not just people shouting at each other over the huge (divide).”
One chilling anecdote Bell recounts in the film is a conversation in which a newspaper titan tells him he’ll print whatever Bell wants.
“We treat it as a throwaway (in the film) because we wanted to show that’s the daily bread of how they operated,” Poplak said. “It was their daily bread, man, they embedded news.”
The film also includes interviews with Nigel Oakes, the founder of the British firm that oversaw Cambridge Analytica, which featured prominently in pro-Trump information manipulation during the 2016 presidential election.
Oakes describes himself as a weapons manufacturer, referring to information warfare, which he claims he’s reduced to a science.
Poplak and Neille worry the U.S. is several years behind South Africa in dealing with misinformation.
Unlike the British press, which Poplak claimed was more sympathetic to pro-business interests, South African journalists drew a line in the sand.
“There was never the sense in the South African press (that it was) ‘just a bunch of good old dudes trying to have a good old time telling us how good mining is.’ There was always a sense of malevolence,” Poplak said about reaction to the PR campaign. “Their reputation was so bad, there wasn’t anyone outside the British press credulous enough to buy their (garbage) after 2016. I think we did a very good job here.”
Bell Pottinger collapsed in 2017. Zuma stepped down in 2018 and is on trial for corruption.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to South America in one instance, rather than South Africa.
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Julian Doan’s short film “Raspberry” will begin its on-demand, virtual Sundance Filim Festival run on Jan. 28.