BOB EDWARDS, Host: It’s 11 minutes before the hour. Using propaganda to rally the public behind foreign-policy objectives.
EDWARDS: The ideas of linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky are the subject of a new Canadian film called Manufacturing Consent. The title is taken from the 1988 book Chomsky co-authored about the way reporters choose which issues to cover and how to present them; how journalists, in his opinion, manipulate public thinking about government policy. Pat Dowell has seen the film and says its not a dry, sober collection of sound bites and talking heads.
PAT DOWELL, Reporter: Manufacturing Consent runs nearly three hours, with intermission, spanning more than 20 years worth of radio and television recordings of Noam Chomsky here and abroad. Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick also travelled to several countries themselves to film Chomsky’s speaking engagements.
UNIDENTIFIED FILMMAKER: We couldn’t make it to Japan. We had to fax our instructions to the camera crew there. The first film directed by fax machine, I think.
DOWELL: The film’s unusual in other ways, illustrating and sometimes playfully dramatizing Chomsky’s objections to the media’s coverage of U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky calls it propaganda and so, in the film, while he explains how different governments control the thoughts of their citizens, the filmmakers cut from Chomsky to a Hitler rally, to American police arresting peace protesters, to a shot of a church steeple and a minaret.
[Excerpt from Manufacturing Consent:]
NOAM CHOMSKY, Linguist and Political Activist: When you can’t control people by force, and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem. It may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule, and therefore, you have to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what, in more honest days, used to be called propaganda — manufacture of consent, creation of necessary illusions.
DOWELL: The film draws on 185 archival sources for many of its images, and also on Wintonic and Achbar’s fertile imaginations, which conjure up such items as philosopher trading cards in a future world. The filmmakers themselves don scrubbies and impersonate surgeons in one scene. While a heart monitor and a respirator provide sound effects, they take scalpel and sutures to a newspaper article about human rights abuses in East Timor, a country invaded by Indonesia in 1975. They’re acting out Chomsky’s allegations that because Indonesia is a U.S. ally, the New York Times played down the invasion’s atrocities by reprinting a severely edited London Times report.
CHOMSKY: It ended up being a whitewash, whereas the original was an atrocity story.
DOWELL: Clearly, audiences expecting a staid presentation of ideas will get something else from Manufacturing Consent, perhaps even the kind of slick media object Chomsky himself might call manipulative. The filmmakers say their techniques recontextualize Chomsky, raise questions about the place of such dissenters in our society. Mark Achbar hopes the audience will think just as hard about the medium as they do about its message.
MARK ACHBAR, Filmmaker: Another function of these recontextualization strategies, if we can call them that, is to prod the audience as they’re watching the film just to continually remind people that they are consuming a media product — the media product being our film — and we want to keep that idea alive in people’s minds as they’re watching the film to encourage a kind of critical distance from the material itself.
DOWELL: Another way they do this, says Peter Wintonick, is by showing footage of people watching — and sometimes ignoring — their film, specifically in places where those people might expect to find commercials or news or sports scores.
PETER WINTONICK, Filmmaker: We rented the Olympic stadium in Montreal and had to pay the hydro company quite a bit of money just to turn on the lights. But we played back Chomsky there, or in Times Square on the Sony Jumbotron. And we replayed materials that we’d gathered over these years on the largest point-of-purchase video wall – which is like this 264-screen video cube in the middle of a huge shopping center.
[Excerpt from Manufacturing Consent]
DOWELL: Only the mall shoppers aren’t watching. They’re playing miniature golf, seemingly oblivious to Chomsky’s looming image discussing thought control, the Gulf War, or spectator sports as training for irrational jingoism. Audiences who’ve seen the finished film in theaters have been more responsive. Chomsky says he’s gotten lots of mail, much of it angry about his analysis of sports. More gratifying to him is the fact that the movie has proved useful to activists raising public awareness of East Timor. And that makes Chomsky glad he agreed to let Wintonick and Achbar follow him with a camera, literally for years.
CHOMSKY: In fact, for a while, I couldn’t get off an airplane in some foreign country without seeing those two smiling faces there, and my heart sinking. It felt the first scene of La Dolce Vita a bit.
DOWELL: Noam Chomsky goes to the movies? Fellini movies?
CHOMSKY: Yeah, I’m not as remote from the popular culture as I sometimes pretend.
DOWELL: He didn’t let Wintonick and Achbar follow him everywhere, however.
CHOMSKY: My wife, particularly, laid down an iron law that they were to get nowhere near the house, the children, personal life — anything like that — and I agreed with that. I mean, this is not about a person. It’s about ideas and principles. If they want to use a person as a vehicle, okay, but, you know, my personal life and my children and where I live and so on have nothing to do with it.
DOWELL: Which helps to explain why Noam Chomsky has not seen Manufacturing Consent, and won’t.
CHOMSKY: Partly for uninteresting personal reasons, namely, I just don’t like to hear myself and mostly think about the way I should have done it better, and so on. There are, however, some more general reasons. Much as the producers may try to overcome this, and I’m sure they did, there’s something inevitable in the nature of the medium that personalizes the issues and gives the impression that some individual — in this case, it happens to be me — is the, you know, the leader of a mass movement or trying to become one, or something of that kind.
DOWELL: Chomsky says he’s not any such thing and that movements for social change succeed not because of leaders, but because of largely unknown workers on the front lines. He does understand, however, that people can be reached by a medium that puts a face on ideas that challenge the official story.
CHOMSKY: There’s very little in the way of political organization or other forms of association in which people can participate meaningfully in the public arena. People are — feel themselves as victims. They’re isolated victims of propaganda, and if somehow, somebody comes along and says, you know, the kind of thing that they sort of have a gut feeling about or believed anyway, there’s a sign of recognition and excitement and the feeling that “maybe I’m not alone”.
DOWELL: Maybe Chomsky’s right. The weekend Manufacturing Consent opened in San Francisco, it outgrossed every other movie but Indecent Proposal. The movie is also showing in Los Angeles, Boston, Hartford and San Diego. It opens in a dozen more cities next month. For National Public Radio, this is Pat Dowell in Washington.
EDWARDS: This is NPR’s Morning Edition. I’m Bob Edwards.
[Funding credits given] [Production credits given]
[This transcript has not yet been proofread against audiotape and cannot, for that reason, be guaranteed as to accuracy of speakers and spelling.]