On Dec. 7, "a date which will live in infamy," Madison's Brian Standing will premiere his latest homegrown documentary, War Is Sell, which is about the infamous use of propaganda when nations go to war. At least since World War I, governments have used sophisticated Madison Avenue techniques to rally the troops, not to mention the public, and Standing both analyzes those techniques and traces their history. (The Nazis, who turned propaganda into an art form, claimed to have been influenced by - guess who? - Americans.) Then he delves into the anthropology of violence, asks whether we're hard-wired for it or have to be persuaded. Then, having diagnosed the problem, he offers a cure: education. We visit a social studies class at a Wausau high school in which students are taught how to read an Uncle Sam poster.
"I was interested in the mechanics of it," Standing said when I asked him how he landed on propaganda as a subject. "It's amazing the way we keep falling for the same stuff, again and again. War gets declared and everybody turns their brains off."
That includes the war in Iraq, which the documentary keeps coming back to, especially in the first section, "Tricks of the Trade." Here, Standing draws on Weapons of Mass Deception, a book written by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of Madison's Center for Media & Democracy. And in the documentary's middle section, he interviews, at length, UW anthropologist Neil Whitehead, an expert in the role of violence in tribal societies, adding yet more local flavor to the stew. Standing hopes that the movie's tripartite structure will give him more options as he seeks distribution beyond Tuesday's 7 p.m. screening at the Barrymore Theatre. "I plan to launch it into the festival circuit, including applying to the Wisconsin Film Festival," he says. "But I'm also going for the educational market, maybe even a commercial release."
Let the war of words begin.