There has been much talk over the last year of the “post-truth era” and significant hand-wringing about how to reinstate a respect for “reality” (i.e. “the world or state of things as they actually exist as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”). Yet, without getting too postmodern, the tendency of individuals to create their own “truths”—whether it be to convince themselves that they are decent people or that they are doing the right thing—has been a fundamentally human tendency throughout time.
Among the many themes embedded in the voluminous programming at DOC NYC this November was the question of how individuals or groups of people justify their own beliefs and actions regardless of how things actually exist. While this is not necessarily a new theme, it certainly has a more relevant gleam now that the United States’ leaders and significant parts of its population have rejected even objective ideas of reason and science.
In A Murder in Mansfield, Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple takes on the story of Collier Landry, whose mother was murdered by his father when he was eleven years old. Collier reengages with the small Midwestern community where some 25 years ago the trial was televised, traumatizing the community with the tale of a prominent doctor who buried his bludgeoned and suffocated wife under cement. At eleven years old Collier eloquently testified against his father who, even after conviction, continued to deny his guilt. Over the following years, as Collier lived with a foster family, he wrote his father who continued to deny guilt and at one point stopped accepting Collier’s letters. But then suddenly, as a manipulative sociopath might do, Collier’s father writes a letter to his son in which he admits the killing but only as an accident.
As he grew up Collier continued to struggle with what had happened, and you can tell the film is as much a vehicle for his own catharsis as it is a poignant story. The culmination of the film is a calm and surreal scene where Collier interviews his father in prison. After some small talk Collier asks him to admit that he murdered his mother. His father responds with the insistence that it was an accident. “I don’t believe you…you murdered my mother,” Collier responds. The calm demeanor of the father is chilling. You can almost see him palpably convincing himself of his innocence in real time—a resolute denial of fact that’s more than a little familiar these days.
In EuroTrump we get close to a sociopath of a different sort with the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders. Cold-mannered but affable with a shock of dyed white hair and a look reminiscent of Mike Meyers’s Goldmember, Geert explains his worldview and how, since the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 by a Islamic extremist, he has been under 24-hour guard for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. This daily restriction on his movement and contact with others seems to have made his worldview increasingly narrow, from disparaging parts of Islam to condemning the religion as a whole. This, of course, ignites street protests of extremist Muslims who call for his head—all of which seems to fit his plan. When brought to trial for hate speech in Holland, Geert even begins to complain about the violation of his “freedom of speech”—the same kind of specious argument you might hear from some American right-wingers spouting overtly fascist ideas.
The film posits that much of the xenophobic rhetoric we have seen come into national narratives in the last couple of years has at least partial origins in the likes of Wilders. The film partly follows the recent Dutch elections and shows how the ruling mainstream conservative party adopted some of these stances much in the same way that the Republican Party in the US veered even more to the right during the last election cycle. The difference is that, while gaining some votes, Wilders didn’t become Prime Minister; in the United States, we are all familiar with the outcome. Nevertheless, Wilders’s influence has remained constant in Holland: his myopic worldview still influences politics in his homeland and nationalist networks throughout the world.
In Greg Barker’s The Final Year, the opening night film at DOC NYC, we get a nostalgic taste of the Obama Administration’s proactive international diplomacy over his last year in office. Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, are the key characters and we see them in the cramped basement rooms of the White House, meetings at the Hague, and on the road in Africa. In contrast to the nationalist, protectionist politics prevalent in 2017, the film documents the challenge and idealism of international engagement that the Obama Administration—even with all of its faults— tried to push in 2016 and before. From Obama’s speech at Hiroshima that “we must change our mindset about war itself” to working against climate change, opening relations with Cuba, and engaging in the Syrian morass, the film presents a behind-the-scenes view into the often prosaic goings-on of diplomacy.
And it is certainly nice to hear talk about less military and more engagement, about working towards a world with less carnage and a long-term goal of international engagement that would ideally decrease conflict for future generations. All of this takes place against a backdrop where there was a solid reinforcing expectation that the work would continue with a Clinton Administration. At one point Rhodes states, “I’m sure Trump won’t get elected” as the candidate’s spectral image appears on TV in the background. The ideals of engagement and “American exceptionalism” guide their work and, even though it’s complicated, their ethos is the lofty and ultimate goal of a rational, enlightened Superpower. So what could possibly go wrong in this glassy bubble of optimism? How could there be another road to the future betterment of all?
The Final Year is, then, yet another film about the dangers of self-deception. DOC NYC contained scores of films that fit this profile—indeed, one of the powers of nonfiction film is that it can offer an outside perspective on such worldviews. And one hopes that, by looking in from the outside, we can gain a better understanding of how such delusions form in the first place, giving us some perspective on the ideas and attitudes that will move us all forward—or destroy us. One hopes that this deeper understanding will help make the world a better place. But, then again, if we can’t agree on the world as it actually exists, how can we hope to make it better?
Williams Cole is a founding contributing editor of the Rail and a documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is Rebel Rossa.