By Gabriel Mizrahi
Aug 13, 2013
Things are getting real. Entertainment, specifically. And by "real" I don't mean serious, or imminent, or even necessarily honest -- but real, as in pushed to the limit of what we perceive as real, and even further, until it's so real we can't distinguish what's real and what's fake anymore. That's a new and brilliant kind of real that I'm starting to see in some of my new favorite pieces of work.
Let me explain.
Actually -- let me give that honor to the charming British narrator of Propaganda, who introduces "a film about psychological warfare -- a specific type of warfare, designed to distract, misinform, and anesthetize the brain." Over lightning-fast b-roll of candy-coated Katy Perry, primetime prim Paula Zahn, and a dark Defense Department briefing, the title card appears in bold Korean font. Below it, the English translation: PROPAGANDA.
This is so real -- that's the first thing that came to mind. It began with a mysterious email from a friend who knew about my obsession with travel to North Korea. "Have you seen this?" So I clicked it. After all, that's how real things start.
Think Triumph of the Will meets The Blair Witch Project. It's a North Korean propaganda film, through and through -- alarmingly authentic and disturbingly precise, down to the comic bluntness (reality TV as "freak show programming" about "narcissistic parasites") and hyperbolic paternalism (tween marketing as "corporate pedophilia"). The film takes aim at advertising, war, TV, consumerism, taxes -- all of our American bogeymen. What's most stunning, though, is how often the film gets it right. No need to be a Kim-phile or America detractor to nod (against your well-trained consumerist instincts!) and even laugh at the film's take on, say, the phenomenon of Paris Hilton.
See what I mean? So very real. The film was uploaded to YouTube by a woman named Sabine, a Seoul-based translator who obtained the DVD from two North Koreans who she says work for the DPRK government. Since the release of the film, she has been detained by foreign governments, questioned at various airports, involved in a brutal defamation suit with South Korean expats, and -- get this -- just received the Founders Grand Prize from Michael Moore for Best Picture at the Traverse City Film Festival, making the movie Academy Award-qualified. Because Sabine is actually a character invented by Slavko Martinov, an experimental New Zealand filmmaker who has created an entirely new genre with this game-changing film.
We talked. We talk a lot.
"Everything I saw or read was frustrating me as palpable bullshit," he told me, with a gentle thoughtfulness that belies his striking artistic confidence. "PR, diplomacy, advertising, marketing -- is there a name for this thing? It turns out there is. It's called 'propaganda,' and the best propaganda is that which you don't recognize. I wanted to make a film about that."
So now look back at that clip, and smile as you realize that Propaganda isn't North Korean agitprop after all. It's a feature film. Designed to look like a propaganda film. But which is, in fact, the first-ever mockumentary about propaganda that actually serves as documentary.
Welcome to the propumentary.
I won't say any more about the film itself -- you just have to watch the full inverted mockumentary to appreciate its richness -- but Martinov has pulled off a marvel. He's turned reality against itself, in content and in format, in order to present reality more clearly. Propaganda has so many delicious layers of irony to it, only some of which are actually in the film. As I write this, Martinov is flying home after dissecting his work with Michael Moore. The U.S. government is "keeping an eye" on him. The New Zealand counter-terrorism unit seems to have shadowed him while he shot the movie. His lead actor has been accused of espionage and ostracized from his Christchurch community. If any of this seems normal, remember that this is all because Martinov made a little movie and put it on YouTube. (Not that he's entirely disappointed or surprised. He created a brilliant mythology, even uploading the film in parts to make it look like Sabine was translating the footage as she received it. Even submitting it to the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam without credits, to hype the found-footage aspect of the film. Martinov had to personally call to get his acceptance because he included no contact info with his application. The judges said they said they had never seen anything like it.)
Around the time Propaganda tipped, another kind of realness was marinating. Comedians Ian Edwards and Zara Mizrahi (yes relation to your blogger) huddled over a Macbook Pro, prepping for the latest episode of The Preposterous Sessions, their weekly podcast featuring fantastically bizarre interviews with preposterous people.
This week, Edwards -- a razor-sharp absurdist who has written for Saturday Night Live, In the Flow with Affion Crockett, and Chocolate News, and absolutely kills it on every stage I've seen him -- is traveling to Alabama to interview Alexis Greenworth, whose popular restaurant, "Whites Only," is frequented by proud Southern Blacks nostalgic for their racist past. Not long before that, Mizrahi interviewed a kid named Craig, who's battling the life-threatening disease of living in the hood (a bad case of "the projects"). And just recently, Edwards interviewed Lana Belancey, a high-strung New England vigilante who packs heat 24/7, just in case a public shooting breaks out. Her husband keeps his distance. "He's just so independent recently."
Seriously. I'm not making this up. You confirm all of this on iTunes.
I've never seen a comedy podcast go to such lengths to get firsthand interviews with America's most ridiculous personalities. I listen to the show, and I find myself turning over questions I never thought I'd have to answer. Questions like, Is growing up on the wrong side of the tracks an autoimmune disease? Is racism wrong if it's mutually consensual?
Open to your thoughts.
But here's where the realness gets real. Follow the voices on The Preposterous Sessions, and you discover that Mizrahi is Alexis Greenworth. Edwards is Craig. All of the guests on the show are actually characters invented by the hosts. The chameleonic comics take turns each week pretending to be the ridiculous people they are interviewing, but they play it straight, as if you were tuning into an R-rated NPR segment gone terribly wrong. "We shine a light on society's follies, abuses, and shortcomings, then ridicule and celebrate them through our characters," explains Edwards. People are digging it -- the show recently hit 30,000 listeners.
Like I said, nothing else like it. What Propaganda did to propaganda, Preposterous is doing to the comedy podcast.
"There are tons of podcasts out there, more than you could possibly listen to," explains Mizrahi, who spends her evenings on stage sharing her life as a Mexican Jew ("the Chosen Juans") and her views on violent entertainment ("If video games are so bad, how did piñatas slip through the cracks?"). "So we wanted to do something different, something that would blend reality and fiction, something like Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds. That's how we decided to write and record interviews with people we made up, but with a high production value, as if it were real. It's so much fun."
Mission accomplished. "I started to listen to 'The Blue Man Group' episode and at first was like Dafuq [sic]," writes one listener. "Why is this [podcast listed] under comedy?"
Look -- reality isn't new. This we know. The line between reality and fiction has blurred endearingly (in straight-line mockumentaries like Spinal Tap and Best in Show), absurdly (in surreal adventures like Being John Malkovitch), primally (in role-playing games and found-footage movies like The Blair Witch Project), and metaphysically (in story-upon-story like Adapation). Other ways, too.
But what's new, what I'm saying is pretty fascinating here, is that we're pushing extreme reality until it turns into extreme ambiguity. Where the real ambiguity, or the ambiguous reality, becomes part of the experience itself, and spills over into the real world. How remarkable is that? How exciting? This is a new playground for innovative artists. And we're seeing some form of that in tons of new stuff -- in movies like This Is the End and The Bling Ring, and in immersive experiences like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, all of which are inviting audiences into a new relationship with the material, with themselves. If nothing else, the risks that these "really real reality" artists are taking are impressive. Major hat tip. They deserve our attention, but they're not asking for it. They're grabbing it. They're superb.
"I had a sense that a film like mine hadn't been done before," Martinov told me. "Part of being a filmmaker in New Zealand is that there isn't much support, so you have to be creative out of necessity, you have to jump higher than anyone else to get noticed. So I did. The more I explored this format, the more it gave me the freedom to be bold."