A glimpse into the extreme right-wing world of alt-right activist Richard Spencer, influencer Lauren Southern and anti-feminist Mike Cernovich. Even they had little idea of what effect their “white noise” would have.More info
Ahead of his film's European premiere in IDFA's Frontlight section, I sat down with Daniel Lombroso to discuss White Noise, his documentary about prominent right-wing media figures in the US.
Having its European premiere in IDFA's Frontlight section, US journalist and filmmaker Daniel Lombroso's White Noise comes at what may prove to be a watershed moment: Trump losing to Biden in the presidential election.
The film follows three prominent right-wing media figures in the States: Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern. Their rise went hand in hand with Trump's own, feeding on it and feeding into it. They are the people who were key in getting extreme right-wing ideas into the mainstream, and Trump's own behaviour and attitude normalized and vindicated them.
Now that Trump has lost the election—and regardless of the fact that it seems like getting him out of the White House will be a difficult process—is there a chance for the world to turn around this toxic media scene? I talked to Lombroso about this issue and how he came to make the film.
"I was on staff at The Atlantic for five years as a short video producer, so I was producing short documentaries on all sorts of topics," Lombroso tells me on a Zoom call from California.
"And when the alt-right kind of surged into the mainstream in 2016, I said, 'Hey guys, you know there's this really dangerous movement that's building a ton of momentum behind Trump?' At the time, not a lot of people were really paying attention to them.
"This was July of 2016, four months before the election. I had just graduated from college a couple of years earlier, and I was following what was happening online. I saw some really troubling trends on university campuses too, with right-wing student groups and activists really on the rise. So I pitched a series of short videos to The Atlantic."
Then Charlottesville happened, one of the most defining, darkest moments in modern American history.
"It kind of organically evolved into a feature after Charlottesville," Lombroso recalls. "That was just such a stunning and just uniquely horrible event. So when that happened, we decided that this needed to be a feature, not just a series of shorts."
He started with a short documentary profile of Richard Spencer, the man who coined the term 'alt-right'. Some readers may remember that in November 2016 an explosive video of right-wingers hailing Trump appeared and went viral. It was Lombroso who shot it. Seeing the Nazi salutes and hearing the cries for racial purity and white dominance felt simply surreal at the time.
"We thought it was really troublesome and we put out that excerpt back November 2016, and later I did a short documentary on Spencer that's online," says Lombroso.
"So I already had a relationship with him and when Charlottesville happened, I started to branch out and spend time with maybe two or three dozen people on the right, from conspiracy theorists to politicians. Eventually we decided on the three in the film, Mike Cernovich, Lauren, and Richard. They're really the three most influential people in the American far right, at least online. I really worked hard to get access to them and to develop these really deep, intimate relationships."
But how do you have deep relationships with such people? Did they know that he was doing this for The Atlantic, or did he try going under-cover?
"I was never undercover. The Atlantic is so strict, rightfully so, about its journalism. So we never misrepresented ourselves," he explains. "With every person I had to say that I'm a filmmaker at The Atlantic. I would say that I'm interested in the future of the changing conservative movement—which is true."
"I was interested in how the conservative movement had gone from something that was about, at least in theory, small government and taxes and freedom into what is basically a neo-fascist, white nationalist movement. The Republican Party in this country has been totally infiltrated by people who are much more concerned about white people disappearing than they are concerned about freedom or taxes. And that was that was interesting to me and it's what I wanted to know. So I was pretty straight forward. I said, I want to make a film that's about you, about your psychology, about where you are coming from."
Lombroso is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and being in this environment with these people must have been terribly difficult.
"Yeah, it was pretty traumatic," he says. "I mostly work alone—I shoot, I run sound, I was one of the co-editors. It was a very small team. It was basically me in the field and, sometimes when things were especially dangerous, maybe an assistant. So I think I was so focused when I was filming that I didn't even have the time to process what was happening in front of me—whether it was the Nazi salutes or just really disgusting misogyny. I never really had the chance to process what was happening in that way personally. Now I really start to think about it and yeah, it was an incredibly fucked up experience.
"I think I just believed enough in the importance of the work that I was able to compartmentalize it, put it aside for a little while, you know? But it took its toll for sure. I really had like a a front row seat to this chapter of history and it was very disturbing."
The film's premiere at IDFA will be its first screening outside North America. Lombroso hopes it will resonate in Europe, as the issues the film covers have become global, and one of the protagonists, Lauren Southern, even got to speak in the European Parliament.
"I think a lot of people see this as an American problem, but it's not," he says. "Lauren Southern goes to France, Belgium and Russia and there's so much support for these ideas everywhere. Connections between the US and Europe are deep, and I met a lot of European politicians who came to the US to buddy up with Mike and Lauren especially, but even Richard. It's a pretty strong, kind of under-the-table alliance between Republicans and these right-wing social media stars. At the end of the film you see Lauren speak at the European Parliament and she gets treated like a queen there. Everyone wanted to shake her hand and take pictures with her. So obviously the US is fucked up, but it is important that we see the right-wing as an international movement as well."
Inevitably, the conversation moves to our hopes for the future, now that Trump has lost the election. I ask him if he thinks the perception of the right wing can be turned around? Can we try to regulate social media platforms and get them to be accountable for their role in this? Can we make it again not OK to be a Nazi?
"I think you're right that that social media is the fundamental problem. I mean, racism and anti-semitism have always existed, right? But in the past you would have to meet up in a parking lot outside a Walmart, there was no way to really spread your ideas or bring them into the mainstream.
"And I think what you see in the film and with these subjects is that they know how to take an idea, make it cool or funny or edgy, and really inject it into the mainstream of the conversation in the conservative movement. The subjects in the film would not be where they are without the tech companies really enabling, even incentivizing that horrible behavior.
"But getting the tech companies to be accountable, it's a very hard question. They always say that they want to regulate themselves and some have taken some action, but it's always going to be around the edges.
"Steve Bannon recently called for the beheading of two of his opponents and he got banned off Twitter, but not Facebook—they said it did not violate their protocols or whatever. That's crazy, it's random people in Silicon Valley making these decisions. And it's not a very good place to be as a society where a few wealthy tech billionaires can decide who is and who is not part of the conversation. And at some point there does have to be some regulation and some understanding about what's allowed and what's not.
"It's just very tricky, because in Europe there is a long history of hate speech laws, but in the US there's a cowboy culture of free speech. People are so sceptical of any sort of censorship, I guess. But it's definitely going to be a part of our conversation for the next four years."
This sounds like Lombroso sees a real hope in Biden?
"He's not perfect by any means, but I think he's the man for these times and that he tries to be a healer. And he really talks about decency and integrity, and those are the values that we need to get back in the US."
White Noise screens online at IDFA on November 22, 25, and 28 and the director will be there for a Q&A after the screenings. See the film entry below for details.