[This interview originally appeared on the now-defunct culture website the 405, where the author was contributing editor of the film section.]
Kristen Van Nest is at war. Against anti-freedom weasels; against smug politicians who feel they are above the law; against insidious, creeping totalitarian forces, groupthink, and cults of personality that seemingly dominate the entire conversation nowadays.
Kristen's weapon of choice in her righteous war? That great multi-purpose blade of political satire – something she uses quite effectively as both a surgically precise scalpel and a terrifying broad sword in her directorial debut short film, People's Republic of America: What America do you want? which you can watch embedded below.
Political satire has a long, proud tradition within the larger First Amendment tradition in the United States – we have covered it extensively here and in a chat with legendary comedian and free speech warrior Lenny Bruce's only daughter Kitty, which can be read here.
France, of course, also has its own great tradition towards that same end, with that titan of philosophical wit and individual freedom – François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire – largely spearheading it around the time of their Revolution.
In recent history, the world was reminded of the French satirical tradition when the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine were attacked by a crazed Islamist with a gun in 2015, all, because the magazine published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, as Hebdo satirizes all religions extensively – see examples of their work below. 12 people died from this cowardly act of terrorism (see the picture in question here.)
Hebdo's response to the attack – a terse “F*ck them!” – really captures the next point. The courage of one's convictions coupled with those great expressive freedoms we have as human beings are the greatest guides we have for the constitutional republic we live in – moving public policy and the great experiment that the United States is, in (hopefully) the right direction by speaking out against injustices and lampooning public figures when they deserve to be lampooned.
That's what satire is. That is its goal. At its best, it finds social truths and through mechanisms of logic and sometimes a penchant for comedic absurdity, takes them to their inevitable existentially absurd conclusions that very much could happen. Through showing these things to the people at large, it keeps the powerful in check and molds public opinion.
I hope you enjoy this chat with Kristen and her directorial debut The People's Republic of America – follow her on Twitter here and share the video here. Don't forget to read our first interview with Kristen – on comedy, improv, acting, her role as Nikki on Amazon's The Chunky Zeta, and more – here.
Kristen, this is a pretty powerful satire for those of us who see the historical and geopolitical parallels – which in my opinion are pretty obvious, and include North Korea and cults of personality, which I have questions about we'll get to. Yet, in this era of stark political division and people rarely going beyond their initial impressions on the headlines and videos, what would you say? Put another way, what would you like people to know who might be initially turned off because of cursory reactions to what you’re saying by the video? People who I think would agree with the message if they went beyond that initial reaction and really thought about it.
My video is extreme. It’s made for the internet and online, anything that’s not extreme gets washed away in a sea of screaming. Our President gets free media coverage 24/7 because of the over-the-top things he says. And as we head into our upcoming midterm election, it is hard for any other voices to be heard when he is screaming unconstitutional and ridiculous comments every day. He drowns out everything else.
True. Like an orange media black hole.
Yes! If I can take two minutes of time away from him to have one person think about what it’s like when voters trust solely in the beliefs and wills of a single person, I feel I have accomplished my goal. If this were normal times, the extreme world I’ve created wouldn’t be necessary. But looking at the current focus of the media and the internet, it is.
I think if this country's Founders were alive, they'd echo that sentiment because that kind of thing is corrosive to skepticism about power, which is a principle that is integral to our Constitution and to individual freedom itself.
What can you tell us about your trip to North Korea that helped inspire you?
I visited North Korea the year before Otto Warmbier – an American college student – stole a poster from his hotel (the same hotel I stayed in), which resulted in being charged as a U.S. spy to 15 years in a hard labor prison camp, then going into a coma in captivity and later dying. This was during Donald Trump’s Presidency and look what Trump says about North Korea’s leadership. Now it is illegal for Americans to go there.
During the entire trip, I was in a state of fear as any little action could have severe consequences and the iconography everywhere gives this ever-looming presence of Big Brother.
Wow. I bet. An Orwell tie-in too (Big Brother).
In North Korea, they frame up the United States as if it’s the Cold War and we are going to drop a nuclear bomb on them at any time. Democracies-turned-dictatorships start with the military being built up and mobilized to protect us from an outside threat and then turned in to protect us “from ourselves”.
They all are masters of propaganda. What you just described seems to me to be the sort of natural progression for how these things work, unfortunately. Like a law of political power.
Trump already says he wants to send the same number of troops in Afghanistan to our border to protect us from the caravan and another article said he is very well-read on Hitler’s practices. Step one is to slowly ignore people’s rights, two is to discredit the media, and three is to build up the military against an external threat. We are already marching along those lines. We are not at checkmate yet, but he is moving the pieces in the same way most dictatorships do as they peel away from their democratic roots.
Let's hope we can get ahead of it.
And I know I am drawing up fear, but my goal is to show one way the game can be played. I want people to be able to see one path our country could go down. Trump is already drawing up an image of our country overrun by immigrants as another possible path.
What other kinds of parallels to recent history did you notice from your visit that most affected you?
I should mention on top of visiting North Korea, I’ve visited over 40 countries, am a Fulbright Scholar, have a BA in International Affairs and Economics from The George Washington University, studied how the E.U. was formed at Paris IV- Sorbonne University, and lived in China for 3.5 years.
I’ve seen firsthand how various democracies and dictatorships work around the world. All of this experience inspired much of this video.
In North Korea and other dictatorships, the government promises safety and security to its people in exchange for all of their human rights. Sound familiar?
The politics of fear, indeed.
Trump takes the same approach except it is immigrants that he sees as this all-encompassing threat, even if they’re unarmed women and children in a caravan thousands of miles from the border. He constantly hypes up the fear.
When it comes to elements of the video itself, in North Korea, every room has a picture of the leader hung up on the wall. Citizens must wear pins with the leader's face on them. Everywhere you go, you see their leader up on the wall and on the heart of every person that passes your way.
Trump uses a similar method of iconography – “Make America Great Again” hats, his name on every building he owns, and then the media puts his signature hair and eye squint everywhere. So in designing the uniform, I incorporated these elements, a golfing white tee, and khakis, as well as an armband as you’d see in Nazi Germany. And also in North Korea, they play propaganda on the loudspeakers all over Pyongyang. In the U.S., it’s the same with the media in that if you sit in an airport, you are forced to listen to him nonstop. The same goes if you watch the news any time of the day.
Super PACs can receive funding from foreign-owned businesses. It’s becoming easier and easier for foreign nations and businesses to influence our elections. In the end, I wear a North Korea-esque military uniform to give this creepy vibe as if a foreign nation sponsored the ad. Of course, certain foreign nations want this election to sway in different ways. And Russia’s influence on our last election shows that this is absolutely possible and actively happening.
I hope the feds are doing something to prevent future meddling. I don't know how much faith anyone has in them anymore though – contributes to the apathy I think a lot of people feel. What can We the People do to combat that PAC influence, especially in view of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United?
We need to vote. We need to educate ourselves. We need to take the time to do our own research on credible sites to figure out which laws are best for us. Democracies demand time and we are busy. People need to vote.
I couldn't agree more. What part do you think comedy and satire like this plays in overcoming the profound apathy that can set in for many people when they look at politics?
Comedy cuts through the fat so we can see what’s behind all the nonsense. They help people visualize what’s at stake or at least what’s a long way down the path if we allow our President to continually disregard our constitution and discredit the media.
Well said. To a more technical question, what were the challenges like in your directorial debut?
My first time directing, I have this whole world I’ve built in my head and literally lived in (one morning I woke up from a nightmare where I was in my uniform).
I wonder how often similar nightmares happen to people living under it day in and day out.
Definitely a sad reality for too many people. It was tricky finding all the perfect pieces to make that world come together. I feel very lucky as I had a dream team. Trevor Cummings, the DP, is very skilled and was great at helping me capture the spookiness in every shot. He was a huge asset and is extremely talented.
I also have worked with all the actors before – Alma Gomez, Chris Markle, Cathy Eller, Kristen Lucas, Ryan Haberfeld, Derek Scully – they are all very skilled. I feel fortunate being able to handpick excellent talent. And Bradley Laborman, who is the producer, writer, and actor in The Chunky Zeta on Amazon Prime, in which I play Nikki, has taught me a lot and was able to give me tips to pull it all together.
That's fantastic you had access to people you knew you could work with comfortably. That's vital to a lot of films and filmmakers. I know it's an odd question considering the video's subject but, any funny or memorable moments while filming?
It was really unsettling being in costume. Seeing everyone in the same uniform outfit and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, it was really unnerving.
I bet. [Laughs]
That being said, everyone on set I’ve worked with before and are great to work with so it was a very collaborative effort. Kristen Lucas, the “infidel” next to the dumpster, her boyfriend is the police officer who comes and arrests her, so lots of jokes were had about that. In real life, he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.
Cool. What is the ultimate goal of PRA? What do you hope people will take most from the project?
I hope to give people nightmares to get them to vote? [Laughs] I want to cut through the fat to what’s going on. Our President has made it very clear, he believes he is above the law, that the constitution does not apply to him. And the Republicans in Congress have shown they are not willing to act against him.
So this upcoming midterm election is really a referendum on: Do we trust this man and his loyal Republican followers who don’t care about the law? Or do we want to continue to be ruled under the laws of our constitution? If they watch this video and still want to support Trump that’s their right as an American. It makes me sad, but America is ruled by the majority. This is how it works.
If my video gives people two minutes to think about everything that could happen in the future and gets them to vote, then I believe it has fulfilled its purpose. And people are sharing the video on Twitter, which is exciting!