Luis Estrada’s The Perfect Dictatorship on Netflix perfectly reflects our sensation-over-news era

The Perfect Dictatorship, a political satire set in Mexico, addresses the 'Chinese Box,' the strategy to distract citizens from real issues with sensational stories.

Baradwaj Rangan September 26, 2020 17:32:33 IST
Luis Estrada’s The Perfect Dictatorship on Netflix perfectly reflects our sensation-over-news era

A still from The Perfect Dictatorship. YouTube

In some countries, these days, there is much talk about how the media — at least, the television media — are diverting the attention of citizens from real issues to sensational stories. There's a term for this media strategy: “Chinese Box”. It’s something big that distracts attention so that the more vital news gets pushed to the background and people think these important political (or economic or social) things aren’t really happening. The “Chinese Box” strategy is about a story that people can relate to, a story that moves and engages them: maybe a sex scandal, or maybe something about trapped miners, or maybe even about actors using soft drugs.

The term comes up in The Perfect Dictatorship (now on Netflix), Luis Estrada’s political satire set in Mexico. It all begins with a visit from the US Ambassador. The President of Mexico greets him and sits down for a talk, under the watchful eyes of the press. He makes a proposition to the Ambassador. “If you open your borders to Mexicans, we can do all kinds of jobs even the black people don’t want to do.” He even uses the word “negros”, and repeats: “The Mexicans are better than blacks almost in everything.” What a fool! Doesn’t he see that the Ambassador opposite him represents… President Obama?

Anyway, the diplomatic faux pas goes viral and the President is scared that his approval ratings will plummet. So the government decides it’s time for a “Chinese Box” operation. They give the TV channel a video, where we see Governor Carmelo Vargas (Damián Alcázar) accepting a suitcase filled with money from someone who looks like a drug lord. The buck is successfully passed. National attention is diverted from the President’s faux pas to Governor Vargas’s “corruption”. And now, Governor Vargas decides it’s time for a “Chinese Box” operation of his own.

I laughed a lot at and with this comedy, because I guess many of us, now, are too jaded to cry about the state of the media. I especially laughed at this line from Governor Vargas: “My voters only use newspapers to wrap tamales and wipe their asses. TV, the fucking TV, is the only thing those assholes listen to.” So he goes to the same TV network and negotiates a deal. Does this network feel a twinge of conscience that the reason Governor Vargas is in this situation is the incriminating video clip they aired?

They don’t care — and this is another aspect of the film that may sound familiar: a television-network that thinks they are a “business” and as such, their first responsibility is to their shareholders. So when Governor Vargas approaches them, the network chief offers “consultancy” at a cost. “You direct 3 percent of federal participation and 50 percent of all your media budget to our network. We provide advice and positioning and a fixed number of prime time spots.” Also: political crisis management, with “Chinese Box” strategies.

Luis Estradas The Perfect Dictatorship on Netflix perfectly reflects our sensationovernews era

A still from The Perfect Dictatorship. YouTube

The strategy they come up with is something that might have been slotted under the “hard to believe” category a decade ago, but no longer. Two little girls have been kidnapped. The TV network decides this is what the nation’s attention should be focused on, and so they invade the girls’ home and camp out there -- but not before making the parents sign a contract that gives the network exclusive coverage rights, right down to filming calls from the kidnappers. The reporter tells the parents, “Let me remind you, you can’t even look out the window without my permission.”

The Perfect Dictatorship begins with this statement: “In this story, all the names are fictitious. The facts, suspiciously true. Any similarity with reality is not mere coincidence.”

The director told the Washington Post that this is the first film in the history of Mexican cinema that satirises the president.

“This sounds weird. Because in any real democracy — and we’ll talk about whether this country is a really a dictatorship or a democracy or what — this is something common, every day. If you are in the U.S., satires like Saturday Night Live, or Family Guy, or South Park, are normal. In Mexico, as a product of its authoritarian tradition, for many decades, effectively, there was a clear censorship by the government.”

This may make some viewers wonder about whether their own democracies are “real” democracies, but this is not a political column, so let’s concentrate on other fictional films that come to mind. In Sidney Lumet’s  Network (1976), a TV network with dipping ratings exploits an employee who begins to rant that he is going to kill himself. In Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), a spin doctor is brought in to “fix” a situation where the President is caught making advances to an underage girl. The “Chinese Box” strategy he comes up with is a fictional war in a faraway land. Two decades after the film’s release, Levinson told The Hollywood Reporter, “Now, we’re not sure what’s the truth because we’ve played the game so often that no one really knows… [My film] was in the area of satirical absurdism and now we are living in absurdism.”

Way back in 1951, Billy Wilder made Ace in the Hole, where an opportunistic newspaper reporter conspired with the local sheriff and obtained exclusive rights to cover the story of a man trapped in a cave. At one point, the construction worker in charge of drilling an escape route is asked to delay the process, so that the man can remain trapped for as long as (in)humanly possible. It may come as no surprise that the film is also called The Big Carnival!

Back then, Ace in the Hole was labelled “satire”. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times critic — essentially, the establishment — voice  griped that the film presented a distortion of journalistic practice. “There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.” Well, Mr Crowther, welcome to the new millennium.

The Perfect Dictatorship is streaming on Netflix.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion South.

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