White Noise director still processing experience making doc on alt-right movement

click to enlarge Daniel Lombroso - The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Daniel Lombroso
As the first feature documentary produced by The Atlantic, journalist and filmmaker Daniel Lombroso landed a heavy assignment — to peel back the layers of white nationalism and uncover what was really at the core of the alt-right movement. To do this, Lombroso spent four years with three of the movement’s most well-known members — Richard Spencer, Lauren Southern and Mike Cernovich.

In Lombroso’s documentary film White Noise, viewers get a look at the pure hate driven by the alt-right and how personalities like the film’s three main subjects are the perfect vessels for the movement’s racist followers to gravitate toward. Through unprecedented access to Spencer, Southern and Cernovich, Lombroso is also able to capture them at their most vulnerable and artificial.

During an interview with the Current late last month, Lombroso talked about why more journalists like him aren’t making documentaries, how covering a topic as toxic as white supremacy affected him personally and what he thought when Spencer announced in the summer that he was endorsing Joe Biden for president.

White Noise is available to stream on VOD platforms.

The title of the film is interesting because it could have many different meanings. Tell me why you decided to call it White Noise. How does it speak to the idea that this alt-right movement can reach a wide audience, but can also mean that it’s just insignificant background noise?

Yeah, I love that you're the first person who actually brought that up. I think we thought about that on a few different levels. “White” is obviously that it’s white people who are making noise if you’re looking for a literal interpretation. I mean, this is a giant cohort of white Americans and Europeans, to a lesser extent, making a lot of noise. I think the other way to see it is that “white noise” is around us all the time. It's something you can choose to hear or choose to ignore. I think that is an apt metaphor for racism and antisemitism. These things are at a systemic level in our daily lives. They are so normalized that people either avoid it or ignore it. I think that's the meaning that resonates with me more.

Why aren’t there more journalists making documentary films?

I wish they would make more. So much of that stuff comes down to funding and having the space. I was a filmmaker before I was a journalist. I spent years and years just making silly short films that I don’t want the internet to ever see. Then, I started working at the Atlantic. I was there for five years and got an amazing mentorship in journalism. I think it's just rare to have an institution that's willing to give someone the space to pursue a subject for so long.

When you’re working on a film for so long on a subject that is so toxic, what kind of impact does that have on you personally? I’ve never worked on an article for more than a few months, so I can only assume spending a few years on something like white supremacy is emotionally draining.

It’s very emotionally draining. I hope that I did a good job separating myself from the material. You know, I've spent four years across five countries and 12 states with the subjects. Eventually, I made a 94-minute film, but there was so much more. I spent so much time with them eating, talking, and just hearing the casual racism. [The experience] is something that I'm processing now. I’ve finally had a chance to breathe because the subject was so intense. I don't have a good answer as to how I’m processing it. I think I’m still trying to figure that out.

Since Richard Spencer is such a big part of your film, I wanted to know what your initial thoughts were when you found out a couple of months ago that he was endorsing Joe Biden for president. Do you think it’s real or is he playing some kind of game?

I think he's trolling. I think it's total nonsense. He's worried that he's becoming irrelevant. I think the film does a good job of showing that. He’s at home with his mom and he was wearing this sad Christmas sweater and having much less of an impact. That’s the way trolling works. You say the most provocative and unexpected thing possible and hope that it will light up the internet. Richard gets how to do that.

Richard and the rest of the subjects in your film also seem to know how to monetize what they’re doing, right? I thought the film really did a great job in showing how much of a business the alt-right really is.

Yeah, there's no way to separate the alt-right from opportunities. I mean, it is fundamentally a white nationalist movement, but they’re also making money and getting famous. They’re all believers [in the alt-right] but they're also in it for the money. They're so caught up in it, they can't even see the other side. Most of the time, they don't know how to get out.

But even when they admit something that is antithetical to their message, their followers don’t pay any attention. You saw that when Alex Jones’ lawyer told a judge during his divorce proceedings that what Jones does on Info Wars is him just playing a character.

That's true. I mean, there’s a certain section of this country that likes disinformation. Trump is the same. He said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose support. Alex Jones’ wife really went after him for all the nasty stuff he says, like about the Sandy Hook massacre. And he said, “That’s not me. That’s the character I play on TV.” But his followers really don't care.

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