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Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy
(Richard Brouillette, Canada)
By Adam Nayman
In an interview conducted at this year’s Hot Docs festival, Montréal-based filmmaker Richard Brouillette recalled being inspired by a viewing of Francisco de Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters—a wryly frightening 1797 self-portrait depicting the painter prone at his desk beneath a swarm of bats, owls and other winged creatures. The overriding sense is of the artist under attack by symbols of folly and ignorance, although there is also the suggestion that these airborne tormentors are actually the products of his own overactive subconscious. Depending on one’s point of view the piece is either a withering critique of anti-intellectualism, or a warning that reason is only the waking façade for something deeply sinister.
Originally conceived back in the (relatively) halcyon days of 1996 and shot over a period of seven years (primarily between 2000 and 2002), Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy—the film produced out of that encounter with Goya—confronts rationality at its most monstrous. At once epically scaled and rigorously intimate, it plots the trajectory of neo-liberal thought in the 20th century, from the totalitarian regimes of the ‘30s and the post WWII Ground Zero of the Colloque Walter Lippman and the Mont Pelerin Society through the overflow of American think tanks in the ‘60s, right up to the End of History. To guide the way, Brouillette employs a baker’s dozen of respected intellectuals from France and Canada (mostly Québec) who confirm that we are, in fact, encircled: surrounded on all sides by the hovering emissaries of late capitalism.
Encirclement’s 140-minute running time has been divvyed up into two parts comprising five “chapters” each, with each chapter afforded its own self-explanatory sub-heading. The visual presentation is similarly precise. Michel Lamothe’s black-and-white 16mm cinematography lends the mostly one-take interview sequences depth and detail (pedagogy expert Normand Baillargeon is framed by his electric guitar, which goes well with his aged-‘80s rocker curls). The speakers are presented without identification, although Noam Chomsky’s spotty visage is surely familiar to millions by now after Manufacturing Consent (1992). Brouillette absents his own image and voice, but still manifests a presence through the stark, white-on-black intertitles inserted between the taking heads. The only real structural flourish comes with Eric Morin’s dissonant, Schoenbergesque score, which provides the odd spike across what is otherwise a painstakingly flat-lined stylistic EKG.
The purpose of such austerity is obvious: to distance the film (and its viewers) from the vast, shuffling herd of contemporary political documentaries, pitched to the rattle-jewelry seats on either side of the aisle, shot through with expedient arguments and pandering cant, and slathered together with what Brouillette refers to as “visual lubricant.” Lest this Straubian commitment to austerity make Encirclement sound like a dry hump, it should be said that, for the most part, the director’s strategies pay off: the general absence of ameliorating pop-doc devices keeps our attention fixed on the substance of what is being said. There are lapses, though, like an insert of Dubya’s smiling mug to underscore a point about free trade and the intersection of American corporate and governmental interests. At this point, the 43rd President is better used as a structuring absence, especially since that way we don’t have to look at his goddamned face.
The numerical progression of the chapters, meanwhile, begs our patience, implying that the great torrent of verbiage will eventually coalesce under a unifying thesis. It does, and the particulars are more or less what you’d expect: that the neo-liberal ethos is one of class division and top-down wage enslavement; that the widespread adoption of such policies, buttressed in recent years by the collapse of the Communist bloc and the rise of the Vulcans, has had a deleterious effect on the international economy; and that attempts to oppose it in various political and social arenas have been ground down by intricate and omnipresent forms of indoctrination from the educational system to the mass media. It would seem that the “invisible hand” has a finger in every pie, leading to what the French author and semiotician Ignacio Ramonet describes as “globitarian” ethos. (Ramonet’s editorials to this effect, written in the mid-‘90s when France began its swing to the right, were another inspiration for the film, which may be why he gets the first kick at the can).
Any undergrad with Gang of Four on his iTunes can mumble these ideas; the hook of Encirclement is that it attempts to work through them in a way that’s more substantive than a sound bite. In some cases, however, the spiel comes off as a bit too practiced and superficial. For example, Chomsky’s participation—while obviously effective in giving the project a “marquee name”—has a perfunctory quality, with the usual hegemony-and-survival rhetoric cruising along gently on autopilot. It’s possible to frame this kind of run-on recitation as a byproduct of Brouillette’s directorial scheme (he never interrupts or prods his speakers), but several of the other subjects prove intriguingly self-divided and contradictory. Jean-Luc Migue, a French-Canadian economist, offers a concise, scathing summation of governments (including Québec’s) as self-interested bodies within the social system and the conditioned apathy of the voting public—“public choice” redefined in negative terms—while still arguing adamantly against the idea of welfare or any redistribution of wealth. His appearance, as well as that of hardcore libertarian (and recent Canadian public-policy adviser) Martin Masse suggests that Brouillette isn’t towing any sort of fine political line.
Nor is he out to embarrass those with whom he clearly disagrees. A short interview with American economist Donald J. Boudbreaux, conducted against the backdrop of a Fraser Institute seminar, gives a fair hearing a man espousing the “ideals of a decentralized society,” although his thoughts on the environmental crisis—“you have to look at things as compared to the way we were living in pre-industrial times, which was extremely dirty, unsanitary, and hazardous”—are plainly evasive (and the way the camera holds his slightly disbelieving stare for perhaps half a beat too long works as a subtler kind of Michael Moore moment). The most excitable boy—and maybe the most compelling speaker—is Oncle Bernard, scribe for Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly that boldly reprinted the Jyllens Posten Mohammed cartoons. He rails against right-wing propaganda tactics casting the left as oblivious villains, like a newspaper photo of African children bearing the caption “victims of the Seattle failure.” “It’s vile,” he snarls. “Worse than the Benetton ads.”
Encirclement’s commitment to a multiplicity of voices is admirable but its arrangement is so inexorable as to gradually flatten them out. As the intertitles grow more pointed, Brouillette’s seeming self-effacement reveals itself as a means to stay doggedly on message. “One who relies on a pre-formulated problem in order to find the right solution is not intelligent,” says Québec educator Omar Aktouf somewhere in the middle of Chapter 6. This maxim surely doesn’t apply to Encirclement’s director, but it may account for why, as his undeniably impressive film’s cacophony of clashing ideas wanes to a drone, the sense of intellectual stimulation all but abates, leaving only meek, numbed acquiescence. Brouillette would surely frame his film as a wake-up call, but it actually works the other way around. Its case for encirclement is so implacable, and the lack of prescriptive as opposed to diagnostic observations on offer so pronounced, that we could probably be forgiven for adopting the same posture as Goya’s avatar when the credits roll: face-down and cowering.