‘How the World Went Mad’: A diagnosis of the confusing, topsy-turvy world of President Donald Trump

I could start with a nod to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis by writing:

“Rupert Russell awoke one morning from unsettling dreams to find the world had gone mad.”

But that isn’t quite right and doesn’t fully describe the situation that filmmaker Russell found himself when he awoke on the morning of November 9th, 2016, to the news that Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States of America. Russell described it better himself:

“I felt a sense of unreality. That I had woken up on a different planet than the one I had gone to bed on.”

Seemingly, the world had had gone mad overnight. But how had this happened? And what had caused this strange insanity?

Russell wanted to understand what the fuck had just happened. He also wanted to do something about this new topsy-turvy world, where the lunatics had taken over the asylum. He was finishing work on his documentary feature Freedom for the Wolf. Nick Fraser, the editor of BBC’s Storyville, had come onboard as executive producer. Fraser had also just launched a new venture, Docsville, and asked Russell if he would like to make some short films for this new platform.

On the day after the election, Russell had written a Medium post on being sane in insane places inspired by the work of David Rosenhan, in particular his famous experiment in which he entered an asylum claiming he heard voices. The doctors and nurses had diagnosed Rosenhan as insane, however, the patients quickly realized that Rosenhan was actually faking it.

Russell also “sketched out two more essays on madness under the new regime of (in)sanity”. He sent these along to Fraser as a possible idea for a series of animations called How the World Went Mad which would diagnose Trump’s election as a form of madness and offer up a possible cure. Fraser told Russell to go for it.
The end result was a series of five short films explaining How the World Went Mad by which Russell asked the very pertinent question:

In a world gone mad who can you trust?

Beginning on that fateful morning in Fall 2016, Russell takes the viewer through a brief history of psychiatry, culture, and politics to explain how we have all ended up here. I contacted Russell to ask him about the making How the World Went Mad and what he hoped his diagnosis of our current malady would achieve.

How did you go about making ‘How the World Went Mad’?

Rupert Russell: I spent a month in the British Library going through histories and psychologies of madness. I picked out studies that could be linked together to form a narrative arc of the series: diagnosis, symptoms, transmission, epidemic, and cure. I turned the notes into scripts, recorded them, and sent the files to Dare Studio in Poland, who had worked on my last feature, who got to work on the animation. The rest is archival footage, which I trawled through.

The most arduous of which was finding out who the infamous “fat guy” that Trump tormented in The Apprentice was. When we locked picture, Alex Williamson composed a wonderfully off-kilter score and three sound designers at Unit Post created a soundscape of insanity filled with screams, explosions, and even orgasms.

The polemic for your films rests on the idea Trump is mad—what happens if he is not mad?

RR: The source of my anxiety, as I describe in Episode 1, “Diagnosis,” is precisely this question: What if Trump is the new definition of sanity and it is I who am in fact mad. The line between sanity and insanity has been a skipping rope throughout history, pulling people in and out of it. Gays, lesbians, and women have only recently escaped their 19th-century diagnosis as perverts and hysterics. The Trump/Pence victory signalled another swing of the rope. In their Handmaid’s Tale morality, these gender traitors deserve no voice in the patriarch’s definition of sanity—where only the male “commanders” are capable of rational judgements.

The insanity of this position should be self-evident. But too increasingly, it’s becoming the new definition of sanity. We are living through another reaction to social progress that has resurrected the same tropes and characters of the feminist backlash in the 1980s, which inspired Atwood’s original novel.

More diagnosis of ‘How the World Went Mad,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:02 am
‘Freedom for the Wolf’: Essential new documentary traces the rise of fake democracy

Last year, I was very fortunate to see an early cut of Rupert Russell’s documentary on the rise of fake democracy Freedom of the Wolf, which will be on release soon and is currently screening at the International Documentary Festival (IDFA) over the next two weeks. The title of the film comes from the renowned philosopher Isaiah Berlin who once said, “Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep.” This quote provides a starting-point for Russell who goes in search of the world’s most dangerous idea Freedom.

The end result is an excellent and indispensable documentary which provides one helluva ride across continents to meet the people battling on the frontline like the demonstrators occupying the streets of Hong Kong against the Chinese government’s removal of their democratic rights; or the youngsters in Tunisia who are left frustrated and isolated after the failure of the Arab Spring where telling a joke now can land them in jail; and to death on the streets of America, #BlackLivesMatter, and the game-changing election of Donald Trump in 2016. Freedom of the Wolf is the essential documentary to go and see if you want to get a handle on what is happening to freedom and democracy in the world right now .

I caught-up with Russell who has been screening Freedom of the Wolf at film festivals across the world to great acclaim. I started by asking him what had the response to his film been like at film the festivals?

Rupert Russell: The screenings have been fantastic; with a few cultural differences. In the UK, people have been responding to the dark humor – there’s a low-level absurdity that runs through the whole film, which the Brits pick up on pretty quickly. In Poland, the audiences were anxious to discuss how to mount successful protests; which, for them, is understandable!

DM: Was it what you expected?

Russell: To be honest, I think it’s wise to have no expectations. Sure, you screen the film to your friends and family who are supportive and tell you it’s great. I’m sure even Ed Wood had words of encouragement when he played a cut of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Tommy Wiseau with The Room. So I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the reaction.

DM: What do you think Trump will do? Where do you think he’s going as President?

Russell: After the Republicans take a pummeling in the 2018 elections, Trump will be rattled. He’ll provoke a foreign war to consolidate his base and divide the Democrats. Where? Who knows. Australia and Canada appear as villains in Trump’s twitter feed as much as North Korea. I’m guessing that Trump is going to surprise us by invading a U.S. territory. Remember in 2015 how the InfoWars crowd was stoking a heated conspiracy for months that Obama was going to “invade” Texas? It may sound insane, but Trump’s favorite website reported that this kind of action is a normal response to a “hostile” enemy – even if it is already under the control of the Pentagon. Puerto Rico would be the obvious contender for a self-invasion. But Trump is never predictable, so I’m putting my money on California.

DM: Do you think revolutionary acts “keep the status in the quo”?—as a character in one of Derek Jarman’s films once ironically pointed out?

Russell: If your bar for success is the elimination of inequality, sexism, racism and other forms of oppression in their entirety, then yes, every act – revolutionary or not – is unlikely to eliminate them. There’s something ingrained in us to create distinctions and hierarchies. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels captured this flaw in human nature elegantly in the sectarian conflict between Big-Endians and the Little-Endians; that is, between those who crack open an egg on the big or little end. If we can’t find a real reason to divide ourselves, we’ll find one: no matter how arbitrary or absurd.

But if you lower the bar, to say, improvement, then I think even small – let alone revolutionary – acts can make a big difference. If you thought the global women’s marches on January 21 were going to lead to the removal of Donald Trump or the overthrow of patriarchy, then yes, you will have been disappointed. But the current pushback against famous men who have sexually assaulted, harassed, and demeaned women, then I think you have the Women’s March to thank for it. It generated grassroots organizations - in both real life and online - that gave women spaces, opportunities, and platforms to articulate and understand what, until then, had been largely private interactions.

And if you take the two most successful civil disobedient campaigns in history – the civil rights struggle in the US and campaign for independence in India – the striking thing is how long they took. Change takes decades. Sometimes a protest resulted in a step backward with more oppression; other times they moved things forward. But the individuals knew that their struggle was historic and may even take multiple generations to complete. That’s why the arc of history is “long” – and not conveniently contained within a 24-hour news cycle.

DM: What do you think will happen in Hong Kong? And in Tunisia?

Russell: In Hong Kong, the short term looks very bleak. Young leaders are in prison, and pro-democracy legislators have been banned from the legislature. In the long term, I’m optimistic. There’s a body of research in psychology that has found that the events that happen in your early adult life – from 18 to 22 – have an incredible impact on the rest of your life. So in Hong Kong, you have an entire generation who has teargassed by the police and slept under highways for democracy; they’re not going to forget that. And in twenty, thirty years, these will be the people who will be running the banks, the civil service, and even the police in Hong Kong.

Tunisia is sadly predictable. The President, Beji Essebsi, has used the police to drive motorcycles in protests and kept laws that prohibit the criticizing of public officials on the books (inherited from the dictatorship, which he served in). He has made some important reforms on women’s issues, freeing Muslim women from the necessity of having to marry another Muslim. This shouldn’t surprise us though. He was the Minister of the Interior – the heart of the police state – under the secular dictator Ben Ali. So a mixture of authoritarianism and anti-Islamism was to be expected. The unfortunate thing is that while progress on women’s issue is reported in the Western press, his illiberal actions are not. Perhaps this is because we want to keep in our (Western) minds the notion that Tunisia is a “success” and “progress” is being made. It’s a narcissistic reflection of our own ideals; our values flourishing outside of our immediate cultural orbit. And if we look too closely, we may not like what we see.

DM: What next for you? What are you making?

Russell: I have just completed an animated web-series for the online streaming platform, Yaddo. It’s called How the World Went Mad and it uses a mixture of satire and science to try to explain the rise of Trump. Each episode takes a lesson from social science to explain a different aspect of this “disease” – diagnosis, symptoms, transmission, epidemic, and cure. It’s been a lot of fun and I can’t wait to put them out there. Not sure how the episode on suicide bombing is going to be received. But I’m ready for the trolls (the episode might be the one thing that will unite ISIS and the Alt-Right).

Rupert Russell’s film ‘Freedom for the Wolf’ is being screened at the International Documentary Festival (IDFA) over the next two weeks. Details here..

Previously on Dangerous Minds
‘Freedom for the Wolf’: The Rise of Illiberal Democracy

Posted by Paul Gallagher
08:55 am
‘Freedom for the Wolf’: The rise of Illiberal Democracy

Earlier this year, at the opening ceremony for the fifth session of the Scottish Parliament, makar or national bard Jackie Kay read from her poem “Threshold.” The poem is a rallying call for people to come together and protect the nation’s “incipient democracy”:

Find here what you are looking for:
Democracy, in its infancy: guard her
Like you would a small daughter -
And keep the door wide open, not just ajar…

Though I don’t regard Scotland as nation with an infant democracy—our history tells us otherwise—it is fair to say the poem’s sentiment is well-intentioned—if a tad cutesy. Democracy must be guarded responsibly if we are to enjoy its freedoms.

The issues of freedom and democracy are at the heart of a new feature-length documentary by writer and director Rupert Russell. His film Freedom for the Wolf is epic in scale—covering events on four continents—finely made, thoughtful and nuanced. It examines how different people across the world—from Tunisian rappers to Indian comedians, from America’s #BlackLivesMatter activists to Hong Kong’s students—are joining the struggle for “the world’s most radical idea—freedom—and how it is transforming the world.”

This sounds all very exciting—though I don’t think the struggle for freedom as something new—it has been a central thread of human history for millennia. Yet every generation comes afresh to politics (most recently the Occupy Movement and Bernie Sanders revolution) and sex (Fifty Shades of Grey)—and so it is with Freedom for the Wolf.

That said, Russell’s film does highlight how different movements, primarily youth movements, are fighting the threat of governments combining dictatorships with democracy to create what is termed “illiberal democracies.” In other words, countries replacing real democratic freedom with consumerist choice—the right to liberty exchanged for the right to shop—or, as Juvenal put it, “bread and circuses.”
Occupy demonstrator in Hong Kong.
Rupert Russell was born and raised in England. He is the son of the brilliant film director Ken Russell. Rupert graduated from Cambridge University before he went on to study for a PhD in sociology under Orlando Patterson at Harvard University.

Patterson is a preeminent historical and cultural sociologist—best known for his work Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (1991), which won a National Book Award. Born in Jamaica, Patterson has long had an interest in the cultural meaning of freedom. His interest was inspired by his birth country’s association with slavery. Slavery has shaped our understanding of freedom. Patterson examined slavery from a long historical perspective pointing out that the derivation of the word slave comes from the ethnic group Slavs. Blond, blue-eyed Slavs were once the main ethnicity of slaves—further the “vast majority of slaves for over 2,000 years of Western history were white.” But it’s a different kind of slavery that threatens democracy today.

Patterson appears in Russell’s documentary and his work on freedom—what is it? what does it mean? how is it being eroded today?—underpin some of the film’s central themes—as Russell explained to me when I spoke with him over the phone:

Rupert Russell: Our original intention was to examine what freedom meant in different cultures around the world. I’d been thinking about freedom and the paradox of freedom for quite a while and I decided to do a bit of exploration into not only what freedom means in different cultures but how does it relate to power.

My advisor at Harvard during my PhD was Orlando Patterson who had already done quite extensive research on this. For example, he examined how ordinary Americans when you ask them to talk about “freedom” there were all kinds of things they said from being naked on a beach to driving their car. But invariably what they they didn’t talk about was voting.

Orlando’s hypothesis actually explains how people such as George Bush and other politicians of the Iraq war era were able to use the idea of freedom in the forefront of their rhetoric while at the same time eroding democratic institutions through things like the Patriot Act.

I was already aware there was a very sophisticated way to think about the relationship between freedom and power—the different definitions of freedom and how they can interplay with each other. How we may emphasise in a culture too much of a personal version of freedom and not connect that with a democratic or institutional version of freedom upon which our personal freedom depends.

More from Rupert Russell on ‘Freedom for the Wolf,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
03:50 pm