AFI DOCS: Daniel Lombroso on WHITE NOISE
“White nationalism, conspiracy theories, and hate are surging in the U.S. and around the world. WHITE NOISE situates you within this movement, so that you can see and feel how deep it runs…We have to understand the seductive power of extremism in order to neutralize it.” -Daniel Lombroso, director of WHITE NOISE
The film screened at AFI DOCS on June 20.
The Atlantic’s WHITE NOISE is the definitive – and disturbing – inside story of the alt-right. In his directorial debut, filmmaker Daniel Lombroso tracks the rise of far-right nationalism by focusing on the lives of three leaders in the movement.
AFI: How did you become interested in this story? What inspired you to tell it?
Lombroso: Both of my grandmothers are Holocaust survivors—one from Poland, the other from Germany—and understanding their tragic stories was an important part of my childhood. As a Jewish American from New York, I never imagined that that kind of hate could resurge. In 2016, just after beginning as a video producer at The Atlantic, I noticed anti-Semitism and racism bubbling up in obscure corners of the internet. The term alt-right was not known widely, and these communities weren’t being covered. I wanted to understand at a basic level: Who are these people? What do they believe? Where does the trolling end and the ideology begin? Kasia, the film’s fantastic producer, along with the rest of The Atlantic, understood the journalistic importance of these questions and supported what became a four-year project.
AFI: How did you find and connect with the subjects in your film?
Lombroso: I began with a short profile of Richard Spencer, back before he was a household name. When filming that story, which was immediately after Donald Trump’s election, I caught his followers breaking out into Nazi salutes, which became a viral moment known in the movement as “Hailgate.” After the wide attention to that coverage, I met dozens more in the alt-right. We were clear-eyed about not giving a platform to those on the fringe. So, it became my priority to gain unprecedented access to the movement’s most prominent extremists—those who already had followings in the millions and were shaping the public conversation. I wasn’t searching for that quick-hit news story, but had a genuine curiosity to go deep. I think the film’s subjects saw that reflected in my approach. It was nearly impossible to convince Lauren Southern to participate, but after eight months of conversations, she invited me overseas with her team to Russia. It was all a lesson in persistence.
AFI: What was one of the most challenging or memorable experiences while making the film?
Lombroso: This subject is incredibly challenging—both in terms of getting the coverage right and dealing with the day-to-day stress of being exposed to these ideas. We were adamant that the film should never serve as a recruiting tool for the movement. WHITE NOISE captures the infighting, contradictions, and doubt at the core of the alt-right. Its leaders follow little of what they preach and accept no responsibility for the damage that they’ve caused. From large scene decisions down to shot selection, we brought the painstaking journalistic rigor of an Atlantic cover story to this project.
AFI: What do you hope the audiences at AFI DOCS will walk away with after viewing your film?
Lombroso: The film has two key messages. First, I hope that viewers take the scale of this movement seriously. White nationalism, conspiracy theories, and hate are surging in the U.S. and around the world. WHITE NOISE situates you within this movement, so that you can see and feel how deep it runs. Second, at a gut level, WHITE NOISE captures the emotional power of hatred. For kids who are lost or confused, these ideas can be intoxicating. With the economy tanking and President Trump doubling down on his xenophobic messaging, so many more might get sucked down this rabbit hole. WHITE NOISE, as a piece of documentary journalism, should help raise awareness about how this works. We have to understand the seductive power of extremism in order to neutralize it.