Richard Poplak on ‘Influence’

Richard Poplak - Credit Daniel HewettRichard Poplak and Diana Neille’s explosive rise-and-fall documentary Influence is opening the 2020 Encounters Documentary film festival on 20 August. The film serves as a part-confessional, part-exploration of weaponised PR communication from its origins as told by its founders. Created by journalist film-makers, the documentary substantiates as it builds, allowing Lord Tim Bell to essentially guide the international investigation.

Spling caught up with Richard Poplak to unlock what it took to unleash Influence.

How did you get into documentary film-making?

I actually trained as a filmmaker back in the 90s, and used to shoot commercials and music videos before transitioning to journalism. I hadn’t shot anything in anger in many years, but when Diana Neille approached me to collaborate on a Bell Pottinger project, I kinda jumped at it.

As a fearless gonzo journalist, what would you say your toughest assignment was?

Ah man. I’ve been on the corruption beat for so long that it all blends together into one shit-caked melange. And it always seems to get worse. To be honest, I think I find the current moment remarkably terrible — Covid-19 is a feeding frenzy, and it’s entirely legal to wear a face mask when committing state-sanctioned robbery in broad daylight.

You were heavily involved in breaking the #GuptaLeaks scandal… is this what prompted you to create and direct Influence?

Nope. The idea for the documentary wasn’t mine.

You’ve got some experience writing and producing documentaries… what was it like stepping up to direct a project of this scale with Diana Neille?

There was no precedent. It was so complicated, we shot all over the world and there were so many moving parts. Also, it was a South African/Canadian co-production, which made the funding mechanisms especially complex. Good thing we had wise and experienced producers, or we’d have been toast.

I was amazed at the unprecedented access you had to Lord Tim Bell… how did that come about?

Simple, really. Diana and I agreed that I would go to London to track him down. I did so, and when we finally met in his Belgravia townhouse, I told him that we were making a documentary on Bell Pottinger with or without his participation. And, weirdly, he agreed. He allowed us to shoot in his home for five days, showed us immense hospitality, and was a charming host.

Influence uncovers the origins of the form of weaponised communication that exists today… what are you hoping to achieve with this exposé?

We wanted to explain to people how the messaging they consume is created. We wanted to show that kinetic warfare is being replaced by strategic communications. We wanted to show how social media turns every user into a potential weapon — humans are no longer peppered with bullets, we are the bullets. And we wanted to show how easy it is for malevolent forces to stoke division in unequal and troubled societies.

There have been several documentaries tackling this insidious form of mass manipulation recently… what would you say makes Influence different?

I think the difference-maker for us is the involvement of Bell himself. For the first time, you have the bad guy doing most of the talking, and he buries himself. We didn’t want activists telling us what to think and feel — we wanted to record the testimony of one of the most famous practitioners of weaponised PR. Add to this the fact that we include Nigel Oakes, the head of the company that helped found Cambridge Analytica, and this is a story about the post-truth era from the mouths of the pioneers of the post-truth era.

Bell Pottinger’s expulsion and liquidation must be a turning point… do you think this and the Cambridge Analytica scandal will slow down the rot?

I’d argue that back in 2016 we didn’t even know that we were fighting a war. Now, everyone with half a brain understands the threat of weaponised communications, even if we can’t recognise it all of the time. There are people policing Facebook and other social media apps for dark forces, and at the very least, governments, the press and civil society is far more awake to the threat. That said, we are still in the midst of an information glut — Covid-19 has proved this. And we
need to build up anti-bodies to the over-consumption of information.

What were some of the challenges of creating this eye-opening documentary – did you encounter any opposition from former clients of Bell?

Of course we did. There is still much fear in the PR industry, and still a bit of an omertà around speaking about the deficiencies, mendacity and straight-up bullshit peddled by practitioners.

Corporate South Africa, many members of which retained Bell Pottinger for years, are very squeamish about this story, and let’s just say that a prominent “business leader” has been unhappy about how we’ve told the story.

Influence connects dots much better than many other films about this deeply unethical brand of PR. Was it important to grapple with the issues and players over the technical aspects?

First of all — thank you. Second — yes, pushing back was extremely important. There was no way that we were going to allow Bell to lie to us on screen, and that’s why we think it was important that this film was made by journalists. Everything that makes it onto the screen was triple sourced — we couldn’t contribute to the post-truth era by allowing Bell or, so, FW de Klerk to get away with bullshitting us on screen.

Bell doesn’t come across as the most reliable source and many probably wouldn’t want to associate with him now… how difficult was it to verify his claims?

Anything we couldn’t verify, we ditched. He dissimulated a lot. Like, A LOT. We just did our jobs the way we normally would.

It seems we’re living in a world where narratives are being devised in boardrooms… how should an ordinary citizen protect themselves from these nefarious influences?

Simple: practice what we call “information hygiene”. When you shop at Woolies, do you just gooi stuff into the cart without reading the ingredients, without knowing what poison you’re stuffing into your body? If you do, then there should be no surprise when you end up in an oncologist’s office, or strapped to a ventilator. Same thing with information. Where does it come from? Who produced it? Why did they produce it? Why are you on Facebook? Why are you instinctively retweeting an article you haven’t read? Why are you on this WhatsApp group? Why are you sharing articles that have been shared with you? Stop being part of the informational chain of bullshit, and the bullshit will eventually stop.

What advice would you give fellow documentarians about to tackle a project of this scope?

Glenfiddich and Malawian Gold. Worked for us.

Richard Poplak (Writer/Director) is an award-winning author, journalist, and filmmaker. He has become one of the most widely read and controversial political journalists in South Africa, editing at large for Daily Maverick. Poplak has reported from over 30 developing countries for news outlets across the world, and he was part of a team that won the prestigious Global Shining Light Award for investigative journalism.