Defining “post-truth” is paradoxical, given that doing so defies the term’s significance. Noting the uptick in its usage in 2016 (Trump Year 0), Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” word of the year. But while America’s current president has a noted penchant for ignoring the facts, alternative or otherwise, he’s not the only one to do so, nor by far the first. From Herodotus’s myths being spun into Roman history to George W. Bush’s “Truthiness,” it’s not clear when we might ever have lived in a “truth” era. What, then, are fact checkers now to do?
Hans Pool’s documentary Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World proposes that the answer at least in part lies in citizen journalism. In particular, it focuses on the namesake Bellingcat Collective, an investigative organization of volunteers whose primary tools are open-source materials and social media. Among other things, the film follows Bellingcat’s investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, using nothing but Google Earth and social media posts to upend all initial assumptions of the truth. The film emphasizes the group’s use of such technology not only to gather information, but also as their primary mode of communication. When a member in Amsterdam unearths a new piece of evidence, he sends it via text that pops up on screen as it goes to another member in Syria, making the viewer feel as if they too are caught in a widening web. This kind of visual exposition is now a familiar trope, but it effectively demonstrates Bellingcat’s real-time, global connectivity.
As exciting as this all can be, the fact remains that a couple of guys on their laptops does not an information revolution make, as much as the film might like us to believe it were so. Though Bellingcat proves that the truth is still out there, they also demonstrate that it recedes further from the surface by the day. And finally, they make visible the vacuum left by this ebb into which post-truth pours. As such, perhaps inadvertently, the film is more about the enormity of the problem rather than the heroics of those who seek to solve it. Yet Bellingcat is still a compelling portrait of people who are at least trying to keep the world honest, and sometimes even succeeding.
Bellingcat will be screening at the Port Townsend Film Festival (September 19-22), the Zurich Film Festival (September 26 through October 6), the Nederlands Film Festival (September 27 through October 5), and the San Diego International Film Festival (October 15-20).