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This weekend we’re watching: 21st Century Politics – The Tragic Comedy now showing worldwide 

This weekend we’re watching: 21st Century Politics – The Tragic Comedy now showing worldwide 
'Black Mirror' (Image Endemol Shine UK)

This weekend we’re turning a watchful eye towards a dystopian satire which warns how right-wing populists deceive the masses using smoke and mirrors, but especially mirrors.

On Monday 22 June, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was ordered by a judge to wear a face mask or receive a R6,500 fine every day he does not wear it.

On Tuesday 23 June, after years of ducking and diving, and being “poisoned” on the beaches of Cuba, former president Jacob Zuma is blaming and criticising the courts for delaying his case of fraud, corruption and racketeering to September.

On Wednesday 24 June, Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci was indicted on 10 counts of war crimes and accused of “being criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders”.

On Thursday 25 June, Russians began voting on whether President Vladimir Putin will be allowed to serve as president until 2036, and it is expected this reform will pass.

Today is Friday 26 June: what fun presidents around the world are up to today? What is going on? How is this real life?

This weekend we’re turning a circumspect eye towards an episode of Black Mirror, a sort of visionary satire which warns how demagogues deceive countries using smoke and mirrors, but especially the mirrors.

The Waldo Moment

Black Mirror is The Twilight Zone of the modern age. It’s a dystopian science fiction anthology series which explores the unexpected consequences of emerging technologies in expertly made standalone episodes which range from 40–90 minutes. The series is fun to watch for the whole family, assuming your whole family is thick-skinned and over the age of 18. To be clear, this will give your children nightmares. It’s creepy and cynical to the core; but it’s also edgy, experimental, insightful and satirically brilliant.

When directors are criticised for the dark nature of their work, they have often responded with reference to the two way mirror of art – how creatives merely hold a mirror up to society, who are not always pleased with their reflection.

Black Mirror is named for the shadowy image we see when we stare into the black glass void of our powered down screened devices. “There is something cold and horrifying about it,” says the show’s creator Charlie Brooker. Our fantastic phones and computers have a way of reflecting the ugliest and darkest parts of ourselves.

The show was originally produced by Channel 4, a British free-to-air television network, but Netflix picked up on its success and bought it, and since then it has earned global acclaim and won eight Emmys.

But there was one episode which quickly became known as the Ugly Duckling of the series: The Waldo Moment. This particular episode was not embraced by many of the fans, first because it lacked several of the features which Black Mirror is known for (action and violence, futuristic technology, and state of the art sci-fi CGI) and second because the story just seemed too ridiculous and far-fetched, back when it was released in 2013. Ironically, three years later – and one US election later – it proved one of the most realistic episodes of the whole series, and it seems more and more plausible every day.

Waldo is a crudely animated satirical cartoon bear with a slot on a wannabe-John Oliver comedy show. His function on the show is comparable to a trashy version of Chester Missing if he were voiced by Ali G (a fictional character played by comedian Sasha Baron Cohen).

In order to mess with the local Tory candidate, the network finds a way to get Waldo on the ballot for a local by-election. Waldo is voiced by a down-and-out comedian who is a political pleb with no interest in politics. “I’m not dumb or clever enough to be political.” Waldo is anti-politics altogether, but people like him and he lands up getting more votes than anyone expected.

Waldo is Donald Trump. They both gain voter trust by assuring the public that they aren’t politicians (which is truly convoluted). They ensnare the masses with flashy charisma – in Waldo’s case, anarchic nihilistic rhetoric and vulgar mockery of the entire political system; and in Trump’s case arrogance, slander, and vulgar mockery of the entire political system.

This is the standout 21st Century political strategy – Twitter wars, armies of bots, fake news, large scale magic tricks and theatre of the absurd. Waldo and Trump are insatiable hecklers. They don’t stand for anything substantial themselves, but they don’t need to. Instead, they spend all their time knocking down what everyone else stands for and trying to look cool.

It is eerily impressive how relevant The Waldo Moment was to The Chronicles of Trump which began only a few years later. One of the most poignant ideas is expressed by the conservative candidate in the election, the most nuanced character of the bunch, who is played by Tobias Menzies: “If that thing is the main opposition, then the whole system looks absurd … which it may well be.”

Essentially Waldo doesn’t even need to win to break the electoral process; he just needs to throw enough shade at the other guy that somebody else gets their votes. It’s not long before an American man shows up from “The Agency” offering Waldo an opportunity in South America. Suddenly, Waldo is not just Trump, he is also Bell Potinger. The battle for political control in the 21st Century is fought through screens.

Black Mirror fans initially complained that Waldo wasn’t actually that funny. “It’s just not realistic that people would have voted for such an idiotic candidate,” they said. 

Little did they know.

One of the reasons that Trump and his contemporaries are so dangerous is that clued up voters genuinely cannot understand their appeal. The left don’t understand the right, the right don’t understand anything, nobody knows what’s real and the only ones who benefit from the mass confusion are the greedy ghouls who are elected. We are living through The Waldo Moment.

But there are flickers of sanity on the horizon. It is possible for one crisis to alleviate another. Demonic demagogues often forged their careers as “champions of the people”. Under normal circumstances, when times are tough under their rule, it is very easy for them to blame it on the president before them or the Imperial West or China, but 2020 is emphatically not a ‘normal circumstance’.

The stakes have shot through the roof, lives are on the line and people are less tolerant of excuses. Assuming that capitalism as we know it still owns the earth when Covid-19 subsides, all we can do is work towards justice for the crimes of the greedy and hope that those who have had the wool pulled over their eyes remember how heartless their leaders were when the chips were down. DM/ML

The Waldo Moment is available for streaming in South Africa on Netflix in the second season of Black Mirror.

Found a little-known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]

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