It’s called artistic license. Feature films often rewrite history and most of the time we love it. Take Quentin Tarantino’s movies or award-winning costume dramas like The Favourite or rose-tinted backward glances like The Green Book.
But what if revisionist feature films become a tool of government propaganda? Here are five films whose treatment of history made headlines for being celluloid agitprop.
1. In 2018, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russian state-controlled international news network RT wrote a screenplay for a film that her husband directed and the culture ministry funded. “The Crimean Bridge: Made with Love!” is a romantic comedy set on the 11-mile-long road that connects Russia to the Crimea peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. The film depicts how beautiful life is in Russian controlled Crimea, takes a shot at lying American journalists, reveres Russia’s victory in WWII and glosses over the mass deportations of Crimean Tatars by Stalin in 1944. Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov attended the premiere in Moscow, praising the film that people on forums and in reviews called propaganda or trash. “Leaving the theater,” Anton Dolin, a film critic at the independent publication Meduza wrote. “Just like after seeing a 3D film, you automatically start looking for the box in which to drop your rose-tinted glasses.”
2. “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” or “The Treachery of the September 30th Movement/Communist Party of Indonesia” is a 1984 Indonesian drama about a failed coup attempt in 1965 that saw six generals kidnapped and murdered, leading to the fall of the communism-leaning president Sukarno and installing the military general Suharto into power for 31 years. Suharto’s regime launched an anti-communist purge, killing up to a million alleged communists during his authoritarian regime. He made this film mandatory viewing for students. The debate over the film was revived in Indonesia in 2017 when President Joko Widodo suggested it should be remade for the millennial generation so that they understand the dangers of communism.
3. The Chinese historical film “Cairo Declaration” made headlines in China ahead of its release in 2015. The film is about the consequential 1943 meeting in Egypt between the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek to discuss the war against Japan and that gave China great power status in the post-WWII world. But instead of Chiang Kai-shek the promotional posters of the film featured Mao Zedoung, who never attended the meeting. It sparked criticism from pro-government critics for disrespecting history and ridicule from Chinese internet users. People started making memes with different leaders like North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un or Barack Obama inserted on the movie’s posters.
4. “Panfilov’s 28 Men” is a 2016 Russian film based on a WWII legend of Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen: Red Army soldiers from Russia and Central Asia who, outnumbered by the Nazis, heroically sacrificed their lives to defend Moscow in the freezing November of 1941. The soldiers are lionized in Russia and there’s even a memorial near Moscow to honor the heroes. But athough historians over the years found numerous inconsistencies in the story, Russian officials have co-opted the legend, painting themselves as direct descendants of the regime that saved the world form the Nazis. In 2018 Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky reportedly called doubters of the legend “filthy scum.”
5. American Sniper is a 2014 biopic loosely based on the story of reportedly the deadliest American sniper in the Iraq war, Chris Kyle. The film follows Kyle as he enlists in the Navy, after seeing news about the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania linked to Egyptian Islamis group, affiliated with al-Qaida. The film, was a huge success and was nominated for six Academy Awards but received widespread criticism as distorting the history of the Iraq war and serving as war on terror propaganda, while portraying Iraqis as violent and uncivilized.