With a 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Influence is a glossy, bustling documentary about the late Lord Timothy Bell’s unscrupulous political PR career with his company Bell Pottinger.
The documentary co-directed by South African journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and explores the late spin-doctor’s role in political manipulation over several decades, notably in the UK, South Africa and Chile. The PR firm ‘Bell Pottinger’ was at the center of the Gupta Leaks scandal that saw 195,000 leaked emails uncover their unsavory dealings amid accusations of state capture under Zuma’s ANC-led administration. ‘Bell Pottinger’ was paid £100 000 a month to aggravate racial tensions among South Africans creating catchphrases like “White Monopoly Capital”. Stoking racial division to distract citizens from the rot of corruption, the British firm was named and shamed after a group of investigative journalists broke the story. The resulting fallout led to the company filing for bankruptcy.
Influence covers Bell’s colorful rise and fall through the ranks, starting in advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi making commercials for jeans to his 1979 instrumental involvement in Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign victories (“Labour Isn’t Working,” punned the posters), which brought her to power and beyond.
Influence goes deep into giving viewers a peek behind the curtains to see the shocking extent of the proliferation, weaponization, and lasting impact of the Bell Pottinger’s unethical practices.
The documentary exposes the need to take PR with a pinch of insult and not believe everything you read, see or hear. With unprecedented access to Bell, Influence is armed with explosive footage and damning interviews to deliver a slick, informative, and entertaining watch for viewers.
Influence doesn’t successfully simplify an already complex story so while there are a lot of receipts, the final accounting doesn’t tell a story that’s easy to follow for anyone not certified in the field.
The film ends with a hopeful comment from Marianne Thamm, who firmly believes “the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.” A major takeaway would be that this cautionary and timely film taps into this mindset offering evidence to validate the post-truth era and hopefully provoke the kind of actions and discussions to unlock and protect against it.