Charting the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of Bell Pottinger, a British public relations firm founded in 1998 by the recently deceased Lord Timothy John Leigh Bell, this riveting documentary reveals the extent to which advertising has become “weaponized” in recent years and put to political use through the subverting of democracies and the propping up of autocratic world leaders. Explaining that he would like to “set the record straight” and ironically “tell the truth” about his dealings with people like the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, Bell opens up about the role of “spin” in a post-truth world where feelings seem to matter more than facts and the viral spread of “fake news” has made it increasingly difficult to suss out the “real” of reality programming. As a self-made ad man and former Saatchi & Saatchi executive whose greatest claim to fame is his “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign that he crafted for Margaret Thatcher successful 1979 election bid for Prime Minister, Bell makes for a fascinating subject — at once affable and callous in his fond reminiscences of the multimillion dollar international contracts that brought him into contact with Saudi arms dealers and the Indian-born Gupta brothers. Indeed, some reviewers have likened him to a Bond villain, owing to his combination of dastardly cunning and bemused haughtiness, but the chief culprits in the appropriately titled Influence are the politicians who hire PR companies to play on consumers’ fears in order to shape public opinion. Codirected by South African journalists Diana Neille and Richard Poplak, the film — though largely free of editorializing — continues a muckraking tradition in investigative reportage by exposing the corruption of elected officials and the rapaciousness of large corporations. Its most galvanizing scenes are those in which the filmmakers’ crusading countrywomen, including politician Phumzile Van Damme and journalist Marianne Thamm, rally opposition against Bell Pottinger and other interloping contributors to racial unrest in post-Apartheid South Africa, illustrating in the process how truly “influential” a person can be in “excavating the rot” of powerful institutions and spreading an idealistic message of hope in the face of external and internal threats to one’s country.
By David Scott Diffrient
Diana Neille and Richard Poplak
South Africa, Canada
(English and Spanish)