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Hot Docs At Home Review: Influence

May 21, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

With this year’s edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series.

Lord Tim Bell, the co-founder of the highly influential London, England public relations firm Bell Pottinger who passed away last year, had his hand in getting controversial leaders elected and helping dictators hone their images to be more palatable. Lord Bell is the subject of the documentary Influence, which is co-directed by South African journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille, and features extensive interviews with him that were shot before his death.

A spin doctor extraordinaire, Lord Bell cut his teeth working for Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1970s, creating snappy ad campaigns that were ahead of their time to help sell products. But his most prominent client was Margaret Thatcher, helping the Conservative leader secure three back to back victories as British Prime Minister, with his famous “Labour isn’t working” ad campaign setting the stage for her first election victory in 1979.

More damningly, Lord Bell’s legacy also includes being paid untold amounts of money to try and shape public opinion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by producing manipulative TV ads and soap operas to help sell the idea of regime change to the Iraqi people. But it was his more recent work in South Africa, trying to ignite racial tensions in order to coverup corruption on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma, after already meddling in the country in the 1990s to help the former leaders maintain relevance post-apartheid, that led to his fall from grace and the shuttering of his company.

The film’s other central subject is Phumzile van Damme, an Opposition politician in South Africa who helped expose Lord Bell’s involvement in her country, leading to the downfall of Bell Pottinger. On a larger level, filmmakers Poplak and Neille use Influence to offer a broader exploration of how democracy is on sale to the highest bidder, and politics in general has essentially become about who has the biggest advertising budget to get themselves elected.

When the question of morality arises, Bell makes the distinction at one point near the end that, while many claim his work wasn’t moral, it wasn’t “immoral,” either. He concedes that he might have done things that are “amoral,” but not “immoral,” with his justification seeming to be that everyone now uses PR firms to help secure election victories. He was just one of the first to successfully figure out how to do it, and didn’t discriminate against who his clients were.

The film packs a lot of information into its ninety minute running time, almost too much at times to the point of feeling overstuffed, and it can feel like the material might have deserved an even deeper dive, perhaps in the form of a longer miniseries. But with polished cinematography by Glauco Bermudez and Mark Ó Fearghail, and some decent graphics, Influence provides a fairly interesting and moderately engaging overview of Tim Bell’s complicated legacy.

Influence premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel. The next and final Hot Docs At Home screening is The Walrus and the Whistleblower, premiering on May 28th.

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