Cinema and TV have a long history of state influence, including everything from funding to censorship. Hollywood films, such as the blockbuster series Iron Man, Transformers and The Terminator are known to have received funding and support from the US Department of Defence (DoD). In some cases, the influence has gone as far as allowing the DoD to directly edit the script in exchange for military hardware, like the helicopters that were used in the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. According to files obtained by the Independent through the US Freedom of Information Act, more than 800 feature films received support from the Department of Defence in the years between 1911 and 2017. Since 2005, 900 TV- shows, such as Ice Road Truckers and Home- land have received DoD funding. It should come as no surprise then, that Netflix, with its 148 million subscribers, has also become a battleground of international politics, intrigue and manipulation. By this, I do not mean that Marie Kondo is necessarily included in a conspiracy with junk shop owners, or that Orange is the New Black exists for the sole purpose of normalizing the idea of the female prisoner. Rather, what I mean by this, is that state actors have increasingly taken an interest in the content available on the platform.
State funding in the film industry is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, due to high production costs, most feature films receive some kind of state support. Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 film by visionary film-maker Sergei Eisenstein is considered among the best Russian avant-garde movies ever made, despite being commissioned by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union. The key here is the artistic freedom Eisenstein was afforded, and the transparency in state funding. There is no doubt that the Soviet Government had political objectives in commissioning the film, but in this brief period of artistic freedom in Russia, they did not hide these intentions, or try to censor or otherwise restrict the artists in their work. This period would not last, and before long the forward-looking artistic movement was suffocated by the state doctrine of socialist realism. In today’s Russia, while there is no official artistic doctrine as such, artistic freedom in film is still restricted through state control of media. In the United States, state control is more obscured, but no less powerful, and the global centralisation of film and TV distribution onto online platforms such as Netflix enlarges their information battlefield from the national to the international scene.
The show that brought this issue to my attention is called Patriot Act, starring Hasan Minhaj. At a glance, the show seems to follow the typical “comedian doing news” format, but it is now, following an episode critical of Saudi Arabia and its de-facto leader, Mohammed Bin Salman, involved in intrastate conflict. I found out about the show through a YouTube advert, which told me that the Saudi Arabian government had pressured Netflix into removing the aforementioned episode due to its slanderous content. This advert was informative, drama- tic and captivating, but it was not selling a product or a service in the strict sense of the term. This advert was propaganda, brought to my screen by Turkish state media, TRT World. I found this fascinating. It had been obvious to me for a while that states and other powerful actors influenced media and its content, but now it was happening on my phone, right in my face. Following this Turkey-influenced awakening, I have not looked at Netflix in the uninterested and disaffected manner I used to. Now all I see is subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging, propaganda and 21st-century warfare.
The most obvious examples of such program- ming are the recently released shows Trotsky, Medal of Honor and Inside the Mossad. These three shows are funded, respectively, by the Russian, US and Israeli governments, and clearly advance the interests of these states. Interestingly, each of these shows take a completely different approach in propaganda, and they can tell us a lot about the societies and political situations that led to their creation. Medal of Honor is quite literally a recruitment tool for the US army. The US Department of Defence has used media for such purposes for a long time. The DoD also fund video games and have even created their own first-person shooter, America’s Army, to increase the rate of enlistment. Medal of Honor is, in typical American fashion, an overly dramatic and cheesy glorification of the ‘achievements’ of so-called war heroes, with an intro sequence that includes extracts of various US President’s “inspirational” war speeches. Inside the Mossad, on the other hand, is a remarkably self-aware propaganda. This documentary series on the Israeli intelligence agency gives us first-hand ac- counts of the Mossad’s best and worst actions. In the very first episode, the Mossad agents that are interviewed explicitly state that it is a strategy of the Mossad to build up its reputation as an omnipotent killing machine. In the next scenes, the same agents tell us about their unbelievable spy novella-like adventures and gloat about the terrorists that they have killed. The interviewer might ask a follow-up question in a critical tone, but it seems like the agents are happy to present themselves as uncompromising killers when things go wrong, and as similarly uncompromising and murderous saviours of Israel when things go right. The openness with which the show accepts its place as propaganda for the Mossad is remarkable. Medal of Honour, Trotsky and other such programming, however obviously biased, could never state outright that they are propaganda, but Inside the Mossad does this in the first episode.
This gives the show an ominous and creepy tone making it difficult to watch. The same goes for Medal of Honor, although for different reasons: its glorification of warfare and American Imperialism is almost nauseating. Therefore, in the rest of this article, I will focus on the Russian television show Trotsky, as it is the only one I had the strength to finish.
A much more compelling, if no less problematic watch, Trotsky is an eight-episode long retelling of Lev Trotsky’s life and his role in the Russian revolution. The show originally aired on Channel 1 for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, on 6 November 2017. Channel 1 and its CEO, Konstantin Ernst, have been instrumental in the attempt to build a new, top-down national culture in Post-Soviet Russia. Trotsky is no different. It is thoroughly revisionist, at times completely ahistorical, in order t create a sense of continuity between the Russia of today and it is tumultuous past, without praising Communism or discrediting “good patriots” like Stalin and Lenin. Importantly, the role of Trotsky is exaggerated: he is portrayed as a foreign-funded Jew, who takes control of the Bolshevik Party and almost singlehandedly ‘does’ the October Revolution, against the expressed wishes of Lenin. This portrayal of Trotsky gives us a glimpse of the Putinist interpretation of the Russian Revolution: it was funded by the Germans and taken over by Jews, and thus it is not ‘authentically Russian’, and therefore bad. Furthermore, by centring Trotsky as the leading revolutionary, Lenin and Stalin are allowed the luxury of being secondary characters. While Lenin is presented as a power-hungry strategist and Stalin a grumpy provincial, Trotsky is a blood-thirsty demon, who wants to forcibly inseminate Russia with the seed of ‘revolution’.
The series is framed through a series of flash- backs, as Trotsky recalls his exploits to his future killer, Frank Jackson (the show’s version of Ramon Mercador) in Mexico City, 1940. In one of these flashbacks, Trotsky recounts his meet- ing with Sigmund Freud. This is where Trotsky gets his obsession with sex and the show its overt and extravagant misogyny. Following this ‘enlightening’ meeting, Trotsky rapes his future wife Natalia Sedova and understands that the same must be done to Russia. Sex and rape are important themes for the show, metaphorically as well as literally. In 1940, we are shown Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo, an early proponent of “free-love”. For a western audience, Kahlo’s openness with sex and the love triangle between Trotsky, Kahlo and her husband Diego Riviera seems fun and playful, but I suspect this was not the intention of the show makers. The polyamory of Frida Kahlo, as well as homosexuality, as portrayed in one of Trotsky’s flashbacks, are depicted in a negative light. Unsurprisingly, the show does not pass the Bechdel test, and there are not many women in the show, unless they are the wives or children of male characters. There are also no female Bolsheviks, despite the crucial role of women in the party and in the revolution as a whole. Personally, I would have loved to see at least an apparition by Alexandra Kollontai, but it is clear that her Marxist Feminism would be far too radical for this show. Indeed, not even Lenin or Trotsky ever say the words ‘Marxism or communism’, and the only hint of any link between the Bolsheviks and Karl Marx is his portrait, hung in the offices of the violent secret police, Cheka.
Despite the deep misogyny and anti-Semitism of Trotsky, it is an interesting show, in as far as it offers an insight into how the Putin regime portrays the Soviet memory and heritage. While no state celebrations of the centenary of the October Revolution were held, there have been moves to rehabilitate Stalin as a great leader and a patriotic figure. Portrayals of Stalin alongside other “greats” of Russian history have become popular, and despite Khrushchev’s erstwhile attempt at De-Stalinisation, Stalin is still widely revered for defeating the Nazis and winning the “Great Patriotic War”. Similarly, the iconography of Lenin is so deeply intertwined with Russian patriotism, that any official criticism of his persona is made impossible. Trotsky is the ideal culprit, as he was not a “real Russian” (an honour awarded to
Stalin, despite him being Georgian). The move to erase any mention of Marx, or Communism, also allows the show to portray the Revolution as a mere power-grab with no ideological content. All of this points at an unease among the ruling class: The Soviet Union is now more popular than ever since its collapse among Russians, and conversely, Putin’s popularity is waning. The Soviet Union’s popularity can be explained by imperial nostalgia, and this is exactly why Putin and Channel 1 are trying their best to create this “new national culture” to link Soviet and Imperial glories with the Federation, and to draw comparisons with Stalin, Ivan the Terrible and Putin. Trotsky is their way of dealing with the difficult subject of communism and revolution, and allowing Russians to be proud of some parts of the Soviet Union while rejecting others.
State power and film cannot be separated. However, this should not discourage us from enjoying film and television. Personally, I have found much more enjoyment, perverse as it is, from watching Trotsky from a critical perspective, than I ever did binge-watching some cop show. Watching a series like Trotsky can tell us a lot about what the state in question wants us to think about them or certain historical events and characters. Despite all this, we should not get too comfortable in allowing Netflix to make money by distributing state propaganda. As the internet follows its trend of centralising media consumption, the choices that Neflix makes in “curating” our content becomes more and more important. Essentially, Netflix can decide to allow some states to influence us more and some less. This is not necessarily a conscious decision by the firm, but I doubt we will ever see a show on Netflix that glorifies the Iranian Secret Police – nor should we.