Che Guevara walks into a bar in Ireland in 1963. It’s not a joke; it actually happened, thanks to a flight out of Shannon airport delayed by fog. Five years later, the bartender who handed Guevara his pint in the seaside resort of Kilkee would produce the iconic red-and-black image known as Viva Che.
“It left an enormous impression because here was somebody I admired hugely,” explains Jim Fitzpatrick, in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, opening at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (July 26). Going on to great success as a commercial artist, Fitzpatrick became more widely known for his work with Thin Lizzy than for authoring one of the most reproduced images in history. He’s also a natural in front of the camera, providing Larry Weinstein with one of many delightful detours taken in the veteran Canadian documentarian’s latest film.
“Isn’t he great?” says the gregarious filmmaker, calling the Georgia Straight from his office in Toronto. “Most people, including me, are just in awe that this image was created not by a Cuban or an Argentinian, but by an Irishman, brought about by this chance encounter. And then he’s such a nice guy, and so humble. Audiences laugh, because it seems like such a weird thing. Who would think it?”
A playful film about a serious subject, Propaganda winds its way through Neanderthal cave paintings, the Catholic Church, and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in its effort to understand the weaponized dimension of image-making. Interviews with Shepard Fairey and Sabo underline the atomized politics of our time. Fairey, creator of the Obama Hope poster, shows scant insight into the topic. Sabo, a right-wing street artist, demonstrates unsettling acumen with his infamous Obama Drone project.
And how flimsy are the words of the Globe and Mail’s David Walmsley (“We deal in the real world”) when stacked against those of George Orwell expert Jean Seaton and the notion of “selective perception”? Covering a concert in Pyongyang by Slovenian provocateurs Laibach, Weinstein is assured by promoter Morten Traavik that North Koreans are wise to their state propaganda. But are we wise to our own?
Naturally, Weinstein identifies Trump as the “muse” behind the project. “I’d wake up in the morning, look at his tweets, be incensed, and then go into the office and work with these writers David Mortin and Andrew Edmonds, and they would encourage me to be in this terrible mood because, somehow, it was a catalyst for ideas and writing.”
Given the skill he brings to organizing such wide-ranging material, it’s sobering to encounter the filmmaker still wrestling with the topic after it’s been put to bed.
“Do we really care about the truth or do we like to be lied to?” he wonders. “That was an actual question at a Q&A and it totally threw me off because I never thought of it that way. Maybe our religious upbringing has taught us to believe in propaganda and lies and fantasies and miracles and invisible gods and things that do not exist. I think the film was supposed to resolve something and instead it’s created a wound and now it’s open and festering still.”