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Sundance 2017: how can film help us make sense of a post-truth world?

As the festival has progressed, three distinct strategies have emerged for navigating the current political and cultural climate.

Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Barbara Schmidt / Sundance Institute

At Sundance 2017, it’s impossible to go a day without hearing someone say — in a movie, during a panel discussion, before a screening, or at a party — that it is the responsibility of artists to “speak truth to power.”

That might sound pompous, and sometimes it probably is. (As a Saturday Night Live sketch joked recently, sometimes a movie is just a movie.)

But the statement comes from a shared sense that something has gone very awry in the way America thinks about “truth,” a pot that was boiling long before the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. With the constantly evolving concept of “fake news” on everyone’s mind, and the new war on facts being waged by the Trump administration, that pot has boiled over and scalded everything around it.

Most of this year’s festival selections were filmed in 2015 or early 2016, and thus can't exactly be considered a “response” to this state of affairs. But many of them feel especially timely nonetheless. And as the festival has progressed, three distinct strategies have emerged for navigating a post-truth world.

Here’s each tactic, along with the film or event from Sundance that embodies it best.

Tactic 1: “Just the facts, ma’am” (repeat as often as necessary)

The festival’s opening film was a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary that literally had the word “truth” in its title. The new An Inconvenient Sequel — subtitle: Truth to Power — takes the most optimistic view of how to live in a post-truth age.

In a word: Hit ’em with the facts.

Al Gore appears in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Al Gore appears in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute

There are plenty of films at Sundance that were clearly made before the pessimism of the 2016 presidential race set in, but An Inconvenient Sequel feels the most anachronistic of them all. I’m not talking about its content; the evidence, images, and stories presented to make Gore’s case regarding climate change are certainly compelling.

Instead, it’s the way the film thinks about changing minds and hearts that feels depressingly quaint. Much of An Inconvenient Sequel involves Gore talking to people at his Climate Reality Leadership Training workshops, the centerpiece of which is a slideshow. (That sounds much more boring than it is. Gore’s presentation is excellent.)

The idea is to train people to use numbers, evidence, images, and statistics in their own communities to bring about change. That’s admirable, and even more admirable is Gore’s obvious commitment to this work and the belief that most people, once they’re presented with this evidence, will rationally weigh what they hear and respond accordingly.

This is one tactic for living in a post-truth society: Just keep telling the truth. “I try to answer to the truth,” Gore says at one point in An Inconvenient Sequel, explaining his feeling that he needs to care for the public interest this way.

The trouble, of course, is that sometimes evidence isn’t enough — something the film actually illustrates, when at the meetings leading up to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the Indian delegation sees evidence but prioritizes the country’s economic development over sustainability measures. (Gore sees the problem and figures out a way around it that benefits everyone.)

But even more fundamentally, what actually counts as truth is now frequently seen, at least at the highest levels of American leadership, to be disputable. If the facts don’t suit your narrative, just go find some alternative ones.

Former Vice President Al Gore speaks at the World Premiere of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Former Vice President Al Gore speaks at the World Premiere of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Stephen Speckman / Sundance Institute

This is hardly a new concept. Decades ago, the French theorist Michel Foucault suggested that power “creates” knowledge, so to speak — that the powerful get to decide what “counts” as knowledge. And the tendency of humans to accept the facts that confirm our preexisting biases isn’t news to anyone.

But even people who are still capable of reasonable, rational thought find themselves adrift today, not sure which facts are “real” facts. In the flood of information available to us to consume, it can seem like for every fact, there’s an equal and opposite fact. Even people who want to find the truth might struggle to sort out whose truth is the best truth, and why.

So Gore’s solution — the continual, clear statement of evidence — is part of coping with a post-truth world. But it can’t be all of it. Maybe there’s more.

Tactic 2: Contextualize and categorize

The “Post-Truth and Consequences” panel hosted by the Sundance Institute on January 21 was a spirited discussion among journalists about the possibility of communicating truth and the challenges they face in doing their job. The panel included NPR media commentator David Folkenflik, New York Times investigative reporter James Risen, Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), and filmmaker Peter Nicks (The Force), and was facilitated by Emmy-winning producer Carrie Lozano.

The participants talked for an hour and a half, and covered a lot of ground, from Donald Trump’s election to press restrictions that were enacted after 9/11 and increased during the Obama administration. But they also offered some thoughts about how journalists and citizens must operate in a post-truth world.

Risen pointed out that in the 1990s, the rise of the internet was celebrated partly because it would dismantle the traditional “gatekeeper” role of the press and make it possible for anyone to be a “citizen journalist.” But of course, that revolution had unintended consequences, the results of which are only now becoming blindingly clear.

“No one really sees what's the difference between a story in the New York Times and a post on Facebook, so naturally somebody with a gun goes to a pizza parlor in Washington because they think Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring because they saw it on Facebook,” Risen said. “To me, that's the fundamental problem. It's not Donald Trump. The fundamental problem, to me, is this: How do we get some kind of standards back into the flow of information again without doing it in a way that people think is elitist?”

That theme — how do we get people to actually listen to investigative reporting in 2017? — was the theme of the panel, and no clear answer came out of it. Fact-checking politicians’ claims, as several news organizations have begun to do, Risen said, is a worthy effort but one that’s hardly slowed the deluge of lies: “It's like they were being inundated, and yet they were still trying to do it the old-fashioned way. It was so anachronistic.”

Panelists agreed that a major contributor to the problem of “fake news” and misinformation is the sense that all information is “flattened” on the internet — that is, every post looks the same on Facebook, and people sometimes don’t recognize what sort of publication they’re reading. Folkenflik suggested that Facebook, Google, and other social media and search engines can help by acting like an old-fashioned newsstand, where like-minded publications (from tabloids to daily newspapers) were grouped with one another, giving the consumer a sense of the category to which the publication belongs, and thus giving the public the tools to contextualize what they’re reading.

Poitras agreed, but added: “I do think that we should treat citizens as intelligent,” she said.

Folkenflik also talked about “news literacy,” which he called a “fundamental component of how we think about civics right now.” Colleges and a growing number of high schools are educating students on the topic, he said, underscoring its importance: “The ability to critically examine and dissect a variety of resources and to understand the nature of the information: what the gaps are, what the value is, what reliance there is on the sources, what credibility there is. ... Being a consumer of news and being a citizen requires more aerobic work by all of us now than it probably ever has before.”

That’s a strong journalistic tactic: Help people become more literate about the news they consume, and understand your audience. It’s a step toward not just disseminating information but helping people decide whom they trust, and why.

The downside — as several panelists pointed out — is that just because you show that one source is more trustworthy than another doesn’t mean people will actually trust it. Part of the challenge, perhaps, is that journalists are themselves attempting to solve the problem of fake news, whether through fact-checking or building news literacy.

But many people already mistrust journalists — and that hurts the cause. Journalists can do the hard work of interpreting and contextualizing information, including information about their own work. And yet other voices are needed to help people make sense of the information being presented and apply it to the world around them.

Tactic 3: Present the truth with a wink and plenty of empathy

A third tactic came from a very different source: Manifesto, an experimental film directed by Julian Rosefeldt that stars Cate Blanchett as 13 different characters. There’s no direct narrative in Manifesto; the lines Blanchett speaks are taken from manifestos that informed the 20th century, with all but a snippet of Marx and Engels written by artists.

The result is sometimes startling and sometimes hilarious, as bits of the various manifestos are reinterpreted through the character Blanchett is playing. As some of The Communist Manifesto and the manifesto of the John Reed Clubs is read, criticizing capitalism and conflicts, we see Blanchett, dressed as a ragged hobo, dragging a cart across a bombed-out factory and hollering the lines. Later, dressed as a suburban mother, Blanchett bows her head at the family table and says grace — but in the form of Claes Oldenburg’s “I Am for an Art” from 1961.

Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Barbara Schmidt / Sundance Institute

The juxtaposition between the words being spoken and the forms Blanchett takes are often striking: As a choreographer, she bellows instructions at a group of dancers drawn from the works of John Cage and Kurt Schwitters; as a speaker at a funeral, she offers a eulogy in the form of various manifestos linked to Dadaism; as a worker in a garbage incineration plant, she provides meditations on futurist architecture; and as a teacher, she instructs a room full of schoolchildren on creativity via lines from Dogme 95, Werner Herzog, and Jim Jarmusch.

The funniest piece of Manifesto comes from a scene in which Blanchett plays both a newsreader and a reporter, speaking about conceptual art (mostly in lines originally written by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt). It’s presented as a back and forth between a news anchor and a weather reporter who’s standing in a downpour — though, as we ultimately find out, the downpour is all show. One might even say it’s fake news.

Twentieth-century manifestos are famously strident, always making proclamations about truth and what people “must” do. But artists are always a bit ahead of their time.

As if to prove that point, Manifesto quotes Kazimir Malevich from 1916: “I say to all: Abandon love, abandon aestheticism, abandon the baggage of wisdom, for in the new culture, your wisdom is ridiculous and insignificant. ... Only dull and impotent artists veil their work with sincerity. Art requires truth, not sincerity.”

Or there’s Wyndham Lewis in 1914: “There is one Truth, ourselves, and everything is permitted. We are proud, handsome and predatory. We hunt machines, they are our favourite game. We invent them and then hunt them down.”

George Maciunas, 1963: “Purge the world of intellectual, professional, and commercialized culture!”

Or Elaine Sturtevant in 2004: “All current art is fake, not because it is copy, appropriation, simulacra, or imitation, but because it lacks the crucial push of power, guts, and passion. All of man is fake. All of man is false. Not only because he cheats and lies with charming ease and hates and kills with determined speed, but also because man’s new cyber form is Man as God.”

Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Cate Blanchett appears in Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Barbara Schmidt / Sundance Institute

Plenty of the manifestos in Manifesto would sound pretty pompous if you closed your eyes and just listened. But recited from Blanchett, performing as a puppeteer or a drunken punk in a dive bar, they become slightly ironic. Rather than being proclaimed on a page, they’re proclaimed by a person. And the compilation of all those pieces into a film yields a work of art that makes us hear the manifestos in new ways.

That, right there, is the third tactic for dealing with a post-truth world: Proclaim your commitment to truth — “Art requires truth, not sincerity,” as Malevich says — but do it with a wink and an empathic human face. “The best and most extraordinary artists will be those who every hour snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life, who, with bleeding hands and hearts, hold fast to the intelligence of their time,” Richard Huelsenbeck proclaimed in 1918 (and in Manifesto’s funeral eulogy).

Truth and a human face and a wink: Can art overcome the post-truth era? Not on its own. But watching Manifesto, you start to wonder if it has the best fighting chance, especially when coupled with well-sourced information and contextualization. When people can imagine themselves in others’ shoes, they start to see why people live and think as they do. It’s not all the work of finding common ground, but it’s the start of it.

With that all said, I must admit this: I have spent all of Sundance thus far thinking about how exactly an artist can communicate truth in a way that doesn’t just reinforce people’s existing biases. And frankly, I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does. There is a lot of work left to do.

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