The final triumphant scene of the theatrical play: Are the leaders preparing to address a theater audience or a political party assembly? Internet photo
From Estonia comes again a film that is getting international attention. Called ‘Ash and Money’, it was produced by ‘Theater NO99’, based in Tallinn. The film documents shenanigans conducted in the city to give the impression to the public that a new political movement is being formed. It then shows a theatrical event performed for an audience of 7200 people, staged as an assembly for a new poitical party. At the climax of the show many people seem to have been drawn emotionally into the fake movement. The point of the movie was to illustrate how people can be manipulated. While it should have been just entertainment, for some in the audience it was more than that.
The theatrical event occurred in May of 2010, a year before Estonia’s parliamentary elections. There may be something to be learned by all of us in the present-day US election season, perhaps as a warning. Some parallels of how the audience was manipulated may be found in the present day election campaigns. Let us examine both, starting with the current US presidential election campaign and then the movie.
After the showing of the movie in Houston: Arved Plaks, Ene-Liis Semper, Tiit Ojasoo, and Helen (Jurlau) Arnold.
The just concluded primaries in the US have narrowed the field of candidates for the next presidency. So far it has been an election process which has no direct precedent. It may make you nervous because two of the three candidates (if I may include the Libertarian candidate) don’t think our international agreements must be adhered to and could be renegotiated. Maybe even NATO. But what country wants to make agreements with one that does not keep them? Of course we will abide by the election results even if some of us will have to hold our noses.
The candidate I fear is Donald Trump who claims to be a Republican. He is so rich (so he says) that he does not even need a party, except as a means to get his name onto the ballot. It costs millions of dollars to run a presidential campaign but Donald has deep pockets and besides knows how to get free advertising as an experienced showman. He sells himself by repeating slogans, by creating fear for which only he has solutions. Donald is using vague promises described only by adjectives. He edged his competition out by just labeling them as being weak, crazy, joker, or a liar and by simply hogging the media by making preposterous statements. Leadership of the free world is not central to his stump speeches. He is a brilliant debater with a quick mind and knows how to circumvent questions by demeaning his opposition and counterattacking. Facts don’t bother him too much. However he seems to know how to appeal to the American psyche and that garners him great support in certain segments of the population; this despite his lack of political record.
So what is his appeal? It is thought that because of his wealth he will not be beholden to special interests money. This is in contrast to Congressmen who spend much of their time soliciting money for their next election campaigns. It is reasonable to assume that they have to make promises of favoritism to their donors in their legislative process. The expectation is that with brash handling of issues Trump as our president will be immune to donors or party politics and can overcome the party gridlock. There is however nothing to back up this hope, since the membership of the Congress in 2017 will most likely retain its current composition.
Trump has learned to tap into the frustrations of a segment of the electorate, not by appealing to the ‘better angels of their nature’ but by appealing to their darker side, fears and prejudices. Take his catchy slogan “making America great again”. Those of my generation might make a subconscious connection with the Nazi hymn “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” For Hitler it meant the right to expand his territory to the East. Trump’s slogan could mean anything but it has a nationalistic feel to it. ”Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which makes it possible to interpret his pronouncements to meet one’s psychic needs. Might it mean that America’s greatness comes at the expense of others?
Mr. Trump by repudiating the need to be politically correct seems to say “go ahead, it is OK to hate again.” His supporters seem only to be looking for blame. They seem to be responding to Trumps message how horrible, pathetic and hopeless everything is. That real or created dissatisfaction is then harnessed by him. The creation of dissatisfaction has been encouraged by the endless powerplays of the Congress. It is ironic that at the same time our country is doing as well as can be expected, having emerged from the 2008 fiscal meltdown with expanded social programs. International agreements have been concluded that should provide increased security in the long term.
We cannot blame Donald entirely for his success. Media created him. His outrageous statements increase newspaper readership and TV viewership. For both Mr. Trump and the media it is a win-win situation. The world will always have oddballs in the political arena. What puzzles me is that so many people are supporting him. To many people anything is better than the current situation.
So now we have a candidate that says it is all right to hate, to marginalize segments of our population. There are lessons to be learned from the past. In the post First World War Germany people felt marginalized and a demagogue was able to capitalize on that by scapegoating and we know how that worked out.
Ultimately everything is determined by economics. Many voters are looking for simple solutions for their boring jobs, or less than deserved pay, or job insecurity. What is lacking is rational education of the electorate on how globalization, industry and technology are irreversibly changing our world. The realities of automation, of manufacturing, of foreign competition and weak regulation of our financial institutions are all factors. If robots perform cheaper than workers, then the robots win; if foreign workers work cheaper, then our profit-based enterprises will outsource the jobs. That is not very complicated. But politicians, instead of addressing the realities, must promise prosperity to get elected. All promises will be paid for by “eliminating waste”, “stopping the illegals from taking our jobs” and “bringing jobs back to America”. The irony is that manufacturing is coming back to the US, but will need mostly computer programmers to support it.
Mr. Trump has made comments related to US commitment to the NATO alliance. NATO is the primary guarantor of peace in Eastern Europe. A couple of months ago I asked my overseas friends and relatives what they thought of Mr. Trump. Here are snippets of what they said in my very unscientific survey of their opinions.
A couple visiting from Norway: “We don’t take him seriously, we thought he just provided entertainment.”
Switzerland: “Frankly we don’t pay too much attention to US politics.”
Our community representative with Washington: “We don’t take sides, we treat all the candidates equally. We will retain good relations with whoever is in America’s leadership position.”
England: “I am lost for words. The whole world seems to have become a demented place to be in. Europe is even more agitated in dealing with its current problems, such as the streams of migrants and terrorism.”
The only compliment people give Trump is that he is a good businessman, thus the economy will not suffer if he should become president. However, there is still time for something unexpected and good to happen.
My Estonian relatives: “America does not need to apologize, we have our own problems.”
My cousins in Germany: “We think America is in trouble if he wins. But mostly we are concerned with the refugees coming to our country, and we welcome them, integrating them causes difficulties.”
My ex-schoolmate in Sweden: “The judgement on the street is that this would be a disaster for the whole world should Trump become president. What has happened to the Americans that they are so disenchanted that so many voted for Trump in the primaries?”
From a book-publisher in Australia: “From what I read there appears to be an upsurge of abuse of privilege by Trump. In Australia Obama is quite well received.”
My Canadian friends did not respond. Maybe they are pondering who will pay for the wall to keep us Yankees out. This to keep us from bankrupting their universal healthcare system.
The previously mentioned Estonian-produced film ‘Ash and Money’ is in a vague way related to the current political events in the US. This film was shown recently in Houston, Texas, sponsored by the Houston Cinema Arts Society, the host for Houston’s Seventh Cinema Arts Festival. Over the course of a week 50 films were shown, selected from the world over. Ash and Money was included as one of two films shown in the category of ‘fringe-theater and politics’. Flown in from Tallinn for the presentation of the film were the movie directors Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper, who provided background information to the audience in a lively question-and-answer period that followed the movie.
‘Ash and Money’ is the first film project of its kind. It is a full-length documentary that sheds light into how the public can be manipulated and influenced. In this case it was done by actors, but if it can be done by actors, why not by politicians?
The movie begins by documenting the antics performed by the actors to persuade the people of Tallinn that a new political party called ‘Unified Estonia’ (Ühtne Eesti) was being formed. These antics spanned six weeks before the actual play took place. It included mock press conferences, distribution of posters in the city, and staged vandalism of the posters. This made it appear a real political struggle was taking place.
The second part of the film shows a fake political party assembly as a theatrical play. It was performed in Tallinn’s huge Saku Hall in front of a live, admission-paying audience of 7200 people. Present at the play were several well- known Estonians, and elected officials from the real world. Among them was Allar Jõks, former justice minister, and a potential candidate for the presidency of Estonia. He even participated in a scripted speech in the play. Also present were Indrek Tarand and Marju Lauristin.
The theatrical play was staged as the beginning of a new political movement called “Ühtne Eesti”. Even visual identity, an anthem and slogans were created for the party. The actors on the stage giving speeches looked like and sounded like real politicians. It was political theater which included images of Nazi and Communist rallies, complete with flags marched into the hall by uniformed men to the tune of invented patriotic music. Speeches given included vague promises of greatness without real commitment to specifics. But the whipped-up enthusiasm level of the audience was genuine. It was a show without substance. And yet some people appeared to be ready to support whatever they thought might follow.
Borrowing some words from the Art Festival brochure; the movie as a whole depicted in real time the creation of possibly the biggest contemporary performing arts event in recent European history. It showed a radical reinvention of the possible role of performing arts in democratic societies. It encompassed the fears and hopes, the manipulations and disappointments connected with how politics are made in contemporary democracies. It was a stunt of fictitious hyper populism meant to make the true populism in real life redundant.
The film and the play within it were conceived and directed by Tiit Ojasoo and Ene-Liis Semper. At the climax of the political theater they themselves became actors who depicted the leaders of the movement. At the end of the play they strode triumphantly onto the stage to a thunderous applause. They gave inspiring acceptance speeches and then, at the point of the audience’s greatest arousal, Mr. Ojasoo declared “Thank you all! You are free”.
(“You are free” is an expression used in Estonia after all lectures and events, indicating to the audience that the presentation was over, and they were free to leave and go home.)
With this abrupt ending of the show the audience was as if doused with a bucket of ice cold water. The audience left and, based on exit interviews, some felt betrayed. Many no doubt had to reprogram themselves from their high spirits and go home, taking with them a lesson of how their feelings had been manipulated.
I am hardly a film critic. The beginning of the film did not give me a clue of the direction the events were taking me. Shown were a series of theatrical events which probed how to engage an audience in the acts, similar to our TV game shows. It was performed in Tallinn, my birth city, thus I could not help being distracted by looking for familiar scenes. Distracting to me was listening to the performers talking in Estonian, which I understand, while I was also reading the English subtitles. I would need to see the movie a second time to get the full impact of its very serious message.
The movie was not well attended by Houston’s Estonian community, because the news of the movie reached us too late to spread the word. But that gave us few attending a better opportunity to converse with Ene-Liis Semper and Tiit Ojasoo. Over a dining table we queried them: did the current US political situation inspire any part of their production? They categorically denied that. And it could not have since the play was conceived five years ago. But in my mind the connection remained.
The connection? We, here in the US, are being manipulated by fears, vague promises and innuendos, repetition of carefully worded threats. There is a groundswell among the electorate, with the politicians playing on the deep dissatisfaction with current affairs that seems to be boiling over in a significant segment of the population, no doubt in response to Mr. Trump’s repeated warnings how horrible things are.
The America that Mr. Trump describes is not my experience. I came here as a refugee with barely more than what my parents and I could carry. We were welcomed and helped. I am so grateful for having been allowed to make a home here. In the 65 years that followed my arrival, I got a college education, I raised four children and I had a productive career. To me America is great and a world leader, and so “making America great again” has a hollow ring.
As I am writing this article Donald Trump has become the presumed Republican Party candidate and he is nearly even in popularity with the presumed Democratic Party candidate. Now let’s borrow a scene from ‘Ash and Money’ and fantasize by going fast forward to the coming November. Let’s picture that Donald has just received the news that he has won the presidential election. He flies to Washington in his Trump-plane, gets into his Trump-mobile, drives to the National Mall, ascends the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looks down on the jubilant crowd as far as the eye can see. He now raises slowly his trademark red hat – and with a smirk declares: “It is over; thank you all! You are free!”