AFI Docs series | “White Noise” brushes searing portrait of American white nationalism

(during all of this week, Screen Comment’s Eric Althoff gives readers his take on the choicest films from the 2020 crop of AFI Docs, the world’s premier documentary film festival which took place online this year due to the coronavirus)

A more timely documentary there might not be the rest of this year, as director Daniel Lombroso trails some prominent figures of the alt-right as they travel the world, make speeches and spew invective on social media to a ravenous audience only too hungry for more. That this tale begins in 2016 isn’t surprising, as Lombroso applies background footage not only of President Trump but also far-right, anti-immigrant figures around the globe, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Marine le Pen, proclaiming that a “cultural genocide” against white people is at their doorsteps. Their message resonates with a certain segment of the population—fearful, angry, down on their luck, and desperate for someone to blame.

“White Noise” follows Richard Spencer, the controversial figure whose “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville resulted in the death of a counterprotester. Asked on camera if he feels responsible at all for any of the violence unleashed by his followers, Spencer hedges and says that those who propagate violence in his name “don’t understand my message.” Oh, but they probably do, and all too well.

Mike Cernovich, a self-proclaimed professional troll for Trump in Orange County, California, is perhaps the documentary’s saddest figure. Driving alone, minding the camera more like a therapist, he admits he is disgusted by his own reflection. It’s a moment of humanity that, though it doesn’t excuse his actions, at least gives Cernovich a dimensionality—and perhaps a reason he seeks the approbation of complete strangers (his wife, with child, says her husband does not traffic in hate. We all tell ourselves what we need to in order to fall asleep at night.)

And then there’s Lauren Southern, an anti-feminist Canadian in her early twenties who is bright, energetic and charismatic. She warns her millions of social media followers of the hordes at the gates, who will take over and replace the white society of the West. Her agit-prop film “Borderless” even screens at the European Union in Brussels, which is a testament to either that august body’s level of tolerance or perhaps its sheer boredom on the day of the screening.

We see Southern near the end of the film, pregnant by a fiance whom she admits is not white, but she sees no countermessaging here. And it is that cognitive dissonance that tips her hand as a hypocrite. And just like hypocrites since time immemorial, Southern believes that rules, such as they are, do not apply to her—and this is the most cynical aspect of her message.

A scathing damnation of white supremacy and hypocrisy, Lombroso’s “White Noise” is among the year’s best films, a shoo-in for an Oscar nod for best documentary.

Director Daniel LombrosoDaniel L