Once in an article about photojournalism surrounding the white pride movement and the work of photojournalist Anthony Karen, I began with the following quotes from Oscar Wilde:
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple" and "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
This was an article written in 2013. While the first quote may still be true, and perhaps with a vengeance, the second is one that perhaps needs some adjustment when looking at the current landscape in the United States, and perhaps in the Western world itself.
Given current political rhetoric on both domestic and international fronts, and even encouragement by many representing right-wing factions in both the United States and Europe, certain masks are coming off to reveal underlying realities that, to the wider public, are now increasingly seeing the proverbial light of day. And to many, it's an unnerving sight.
A film, Imperium, directed by first-time feature director Daniel Ragussis, comes out this Friday in theaters and streaming online; in having seen it courtesy of its distributor, Lionsgate Premiere, it is an unnervingly timely film touching on the very heart of the connection between vulnerability and power. This includes an unsettling depiction of extremism that ultimately leads to an attempt to reach the world stage with a decisive and symbolic action.
Based on the experiences of former FBI counter-terrorism agent Michael German, but placed in a fictional context for the film, Ragussis and the cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe as an undercover FBI agent and his FBI superior, played by Toni Collette, had no idea the film would be so timely at the time it was made. Rather, it was a story that had originated from Ragussis doing research into WWII, and then coming upon the topic of Neo-Nazis and other groups associated with white separatist, supremacist, and white pride movements.
The resurgence of their visibility and the inflamed nature of their rhetoric has, since the film was being initially produced, occurred amidst the greater focus on immigration and influx of migrants and refugees fleeing the horrors of crisis and conflict to settle in what racially-motivated groups historically have seen as white "homelands".
What marks this film from its outset is the intelligence with which it was written and its focus on authenticity. This includes sometimes flying against the error of perception that these groups are almost wholly made of uneducated, lower-class individuals without a sense of reason or who lack intelligence. All of these groups have their intelligentsia--those who are vastly educated, and who are the vision-keepers, as it were, of the deeper rhetoric, having created alternate histories of outwardly accepted world events, and who publish books, produce their own television shows, and have mass followers in dedicated chat-rooms. They influence far greater numbers than the public realizes, existing in a simultaneous, parallel world to what many of us perceive as our own.
April 23, 2016. Georgia. A 12-ft wooden Swastika, wrapped in burlap and doused with a mixture of kerosene and motor oil was set aflame at the culmination of a white nationalist unity weekend gathering. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Karen)
This is something that many in law enforcement have known for some time, and given enough research, others who delve deeply enough into this world are quickly disabused of the notion that these movements lack sophistication, or are even somehow rare and hopelessly isolated from the rest of the world.
In interviewing Daniel Ragussis, it was this research into this alternate, parallel world that convinced him it was a necessary story to tell, especially given past history, and what is possible if certain lessons regarding the connection between vulnerability and often an accompanying will to power aren't heeded.
I was stunned by the size, scope, and breadth of this community - it was far larger, more diverse, and more sophisticated than I ever could have imagined. I immediately began to feel that it was important for a story to be told about these people, who are so far removed from the public eye; and that in understanding them, we might begin to understand one of the greatest historical questions of all - how did Nazi Germany happen? Because it not only happened then, it's happening now - both in terms of the actual neo-Nazi movement in the United States (the country that is currently the largest producer of Nazi memorabilia and branded products in the world), and the ascendance of far-right politicians across Europe - and I wanted to understand why.
His research then led to someone with an intimate knowledge of that world: Mike German, whose FBI undercover work in counter-terrorism had led to the more extreme among these groups.
Dan contacted me a few years ago after reading my book, Thinking Like a Terrorist. He asked about buying my life rights and doing a "true" story, but I declined. I know that when Hollywood makes a "true" story it usually has to add or subtract facts to condense them into a coherent, 90 minute story. My background as an FBI agent and current role in civil rights advocacy make me uncomfortable in presenting things as true, when they're really only "Hollywood true." Dan didn't give up, however, and eventually we settled on developing a fictional story that captured the stress of working undercover in violent groups, and portrayed a more discerning look at the white nationalist movements.
I had what I suppose you'd call a layman's conception - I'd seen racist skinheads, I'd seen pictures of the KKK, I'd heard the name "David Duke" - just pieces and fragments, all of which led me to believe that this was an incredibly tiny, almost non-existent portion of the population, that was as fanatically extreme in its outward appearance as it was in its belief systems. I was wrong on both counts - the community is large and diverse, with significant segments that are well-educated, middle class, and reluctant to go around advertising their political convictions.
Mike and I decided to create a modern, fictional story that would nonetheless draw inspiration from his experiences. At that point, I began a dual track of research - I interviewed Mike in a series of lengthy sessions, and at the same time, with Mike's help and guidance, dove into the existing literature on the subject.
There is quite a bit - memoirs from folks that have left the movement or been informants within it; sociological studies that seek to allow the members of the community to present themselves and their ideas in their own words; biographies of some of the famous figures in the movement, like Bob Mathews; and literature actually written by leaders of the movement, like William Pierce, Ben Klassen and Louis Beam. In addition to that, there is a wealth of information on the internet - huge online communities like Stormfront, which has millions of unique visitors and where you can read postings by folks from all over the world, whether they be airing political opinions or even just discussing art, relationships or their favorite recipes. Finally, armed with all of this research, I worked with Mike to create a realistic storyline that incorporated as much of this material as possible, and then continued to collaborate with Mike as the script went through multiple revisions over the course of the year we spent writing it.
The biggest necessity: to reflect the current state of these movements, including technologically. Again, the technological sophistication doesn't point to these movements being led by the uneducated or those with a lack of technological proficiency. German remarked on the differences between the time when he was an undercover agent and now.
The biggest changes since the 1990s are the ones that affect us all: technology and the post 9/11 war on terrorism. Clandestine groups tend to be early adopters of new technologies. The first time I heard about email was from a skinhead group in the early 1990s. I didn't get an FBI email account until the late 1990s. By then the white supremacist movement was all over the Internet, with message boards and websites drawing hundreds of thousands of users.
German points to something law enforcement has also known for some time, despite post-9/11 officials wanting to point the finger toward "outside" groups; some of the most dangerous terrorists are often home-grown. As depicted in the film, this can even cause difficulty within the FBI ranks, in which domestic counter-terrorism efforts are often short-changed in favor of moving resources and manpower toward focusing on international terrorist factions operating in the United States.
Interestingly, despite the government's heightened attention to terrorism after 9/11, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies still treat far right violence as a regular criminal matter not requiring special attention or monitoring. I think this traditional law enforcement approach is a more effective counterterrorism, in that doesn't unnecessarily impact the innocent or amplify the public fear of these groups more than is warranted. But it highlights the disparity with the way the government views violence from minority groups as more significant threats, especially because the data shows more Americans are killed by far right extremists on average than any other groups.
But the divisions aren't just in law enforcement. These domestic groups, whether planning terrorist activity or not, fall into their own, often competing, and sometimes vehement factions.
When I first read some of Mike's writings about these groups, that was one of the first things that struck me - he spoke often about the combative factions within the movement, and their mutual enmity, despite some very common goals. This immediately struck me with the ring of truth - we tend to think of any "other" as a monolithic entity...when in fact any large group is usually split into all sorts of competing subgroups, with their various feuds and alliances. If you think about it, the members of a community spend much more time around each other than the outsider; so while we associate these groups with a high degree of animosity toward the "other," they probably spend just as much time on a daily basis fighting amongst themselves.
I think members of the movement recognize this, and in fact there are often calls for unity, and pleas to put aside these differences in pursuit of the common cause. So, in attempting to accurately portray these groups, it was important to respect their differences and show that they, like any other people, have their own very specific beliefs and politics, which can be categorized under an umbrella like "white supremacist" or "white nationalist," but which often have striking differences. Witness the two political conventions we just saw, and how a single party can have massive fissures within it that can almost tear it apart.
Also a part of Ragussis's research: dissecting the media when it came to the reaction to these groups. In the process, he came upon the work of Anthony Karen, whose career, including working with Life.com and the Discovery Channel among other national and international outlets, has been based on depicting marginalized and self-marginalizing groups. Included in that description has been his time among white separatist, white supremacist, and white pride groups, including significant work among the KKK.
Ragussis describes utilizing Karen's work before and during the filmmaking process:
I actually became aware of Anthony's work during the research portion of the project. In addition to all the books I'd read, having visual representations of the actual, modern-day community is enormously helpful. You can hear things described, but it only gives you a very partial picture of what they really look like; and since film is a visual medium, that actual look is very crucial to get right.
He also ended up utilizing a series of Karen's actual photographs.
...it just seemed like a very logical thing to do - to be able to ground what was happening on screen in this very real, journalistic content. Almost invariably, when I told people about what I was working on, they would respond with a shocked look, and challenge me with a question like, "is that really going on? In this day and age?" Still to this day, people seem unable to believe that these communities exist; and that's without them even knowing the full extent and scale of them. So to have actual documentary evidence was a very helpful part of proving to them that this is not a figment of someone's imagination; this is real.
I was contacted by [Dan]...who was in the post-production phase of the film. He explained that there were several scenes where the main character (played by Daniel Radicliffe) is doing online research for his undercover role as a white supremacist, and he was interested in licensing some my work for the film. Due to the nature of the film and my unique access as a photographer to the various "white pride," movements, ethical usage was the key element in my decision to provide content. After seeing some of Daniel's work and several conversations, I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.
Karen has been documenting these groups since 2005, during which he has been given unprecedented access to people, ceremonies, and the private lives of many who previously have shied away from any media depictions, mainly because such depictions have been clichéd or hyperbolic.
For those who hate and malign those in the white separatist and supremacist movements, ironically, what has been most controversial about Karen's images has been that he depicts what most people would otherwise consider banal: these people not just in their masks, but in everyday life. Most people don't want to see such men and women as in any way "normal", or being depicted as such, and would rather castigate them for their beliefs. But it is this very "normalcy" that is a reality that is the most important aspect of not just Karen's work, but also what Ragussis wanted to get across in the film. This is why important questions need to be asked and not just tossed aside because of discomfort.
I quite frankly fell in love with Anthony's work, almost immediately. From the very first images, I realized that I was seeing the work of someone who taken the time and pains to photograph these communities as they really existed; to not judge or sensationalize them; but to allow the members to present themselves, and their lifestyles, as they really are. This is always invaluable when researching a subject, but especially when the subject is as controversial and universally criticized as this one. The humanity of these people really shone through. I think that gets lost in the understandable protest we need to make toward their beliefs. But the complexity of the situation is that they are human, just like us. And this was immediately apparent in Anthony's work, and spoke to one of the founding principles of making the film - trying to portray these communities as they really are.
For Karen, there were certain ethical issues he had to be sure were understood before agreeing to be involved, and this included the way in which the photographs would be used, the context of the story itself, and attention to those whose lives might be affected, as Karen's journalistic ethics concerning neutrality, and this very capacity to recognize someone's humanity, are what have allowed him to gain the kind of access he has. As almost none of his subjects has been involved in domestic terrorist incidents, and the photographs were used primarily for context in the montage sequences during which Radcliffe's character is doing research, he was confident about the work being used given certain parameters.
After establishing a more personal dialogue with Daniel, I was allowed to view the scenes where my work would be incorporated. After we narrowed down two specific edits, we defined their usage limitations. The final vote of confidence was production allowing me to black out eyes and blur certain identifying features where I felt necessary.
Being that Imperium involves domestic terrorism, it was crucial that my work be out of that context [and in the research/montage sequences] for me to consider being part of the film. If not, I risked unfairly contributing to a subconscious guilt-by-association mindset towards those individuals I've photographed over the years, people that had nothing to do with the occurrences depicted in this movie.
Mike German agrees that many depictions have been, unlike Anthony's, much less attentive to some of the more human nuances of those who are associated with these groups. This is true whether or not members of such groups may or may not be involved in the planning and/or execution of domestic terrorist acts.
Journalism is incredibly important in informing the public about important issues that concern them, and in promoting accountability. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has sensationalized terrorism in a way that misleads more than it informs.
This sense of authenticity, whether it is uncomfortable or not to the public, was equally as important to the actors who signed on as principals for the film. Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the FBI undercover officer infiltrating these groups for the first time, appreciated the intelligence of the script and the fact that it didn't sell out and made every attempt to get all of the nuances correct--from the depiction of the groups his character, Nate, infiltrates, to the nature of FBI agents who are undercover.
"[The script] was not like a lot of films where someone uses his brains for two acts and then turns Jason Bourne in the third [act] and whips out a gun." He continues further, "This is the kind of work I love...the vulnerability of the character and the ability to use his intelligence in situations where others would turn to violence."
Toni Collette, playing Nate's boss in the FBI, agrees.
It's ultimately a fish out of water story. Dan Radcliffe plays someone who isn't aware of his own capabilities and is persuaded by my character to step up to the plate. But the plate here is a very dangerous, life or death situation. He has to immerse himself...and assume a completely different identity. It's a ballsy thing to do for such a pen-pushing, green member of the FBI. The fact that it is based on somebody's real experience blew me away. It was totally authentic.
For Daniel Radcliffe, that the film was about domestic terrorism also struck a chord. His father was born in Northern Ireland, where domestic terrorism was, and on certain levels perhaps still is in terms of tensions and past history, a fact of life; the IRA are white Europeans. Never mind, the current situation in Great Britain with Brexit has unleashed a vast swath of violence against ethnic minorities, which according to a July 8, 2016 article in The Guardian, saw a rise in "hate incidents" up by 42 percent within two weeks of the EU Referendum vote.
This goes back to why the film is so timely, and not just in the United States, but internationally as well.
I think what you're seeing in the political climate, both here and in Europe, is a massive feeling of exclusion and disenfranchisement by huge portions of the population. We can argue about the legitimacy of their political beliefs and the solutions they'd like to see, but that feeling - that they're losing out, and getting screwed - is real for them. This feeling, a sense of being the victim - and of an "other" that's victimizing them - is at the root of every fascist movement that has ever existed; it's the essential prerequisite, much more so than even a Mussolini or a Hitler. And the easier it is to define that "other" - because they have a different skin color; because they practice a different religion; because they speak a different language - the easier it becomes to single them out as the enemy. Political leaders have been shoring up their own power by identifying a villainous "other" - and conveniently keeping the focus off themselves - since the beginning of time. So without being overtly political about it - because it was never my intention to make a political film, and I actually believe that diversity of political opinions, left and right, is the essential ingredient for a healthy society and democracy - I think you can still observe that this feeling of victimization is one of the essential elements of our current political environment, and you're seeing it manifest all over the place.
The white supremacist, separatist and pride movements are just very clear and stark crystallizations of that tendency; a far end of a continuum that actually is in play for a large portion of the population.
All the more reason to be especially critical of those who would capitalize on such fear, whether in the United States or abroad.
And as depicted in the film, what is sometimes the endgame--fomenting a race war, overthrowing a government either by legal or illegal means, acting out the anger and frustration in some real, and some often very public capacity--is about those who have felt vulnerable asserting some degree of power.
While there are ultimately many more who will not commit acts of violence, anything that will make people ask questions of themselves and others is beneficial, especially when it comes to what is in the common interest. And while there are differing views as to what that exactly entails, individual and collective responsibility means being able to handle the discomfort that often comes when attempting to address the well-being of us all--and not just advocating one selective group over another.
What is most important about Imperium is that in this current media atmosphere of hyperbolic rhetoric, understanding that these groups are made up of fellow human beings who have the right to believe what they will, even if it's objectionable to others. It's only when actions follow that violently affect others, that all patience with inciting commentary needs to end.
Imperium will be in theaters and on demand Friday, August 19th.