The Challenge of Documenting White Nationalism

A Q&A with the filmmakers behind White Noise, The Atlantic’s first feature documentary

Photo illustration of Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern, and Richard Spencer
Caitlin O’Hara / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: White Noise is available to rent now. Find more information here.

Today marks the U.S. release of White Noise, The Atlantic’s first feature documentary. The result of a multiyear reporting effort by the director Daniel Lombroso, White Noise explores the rise of the racist right in the United States. The film is an up-close look at a fractured but still-influential movement, and a study of how extremist views have infiltrated mainstream political discourse. I spoke with Daniel and Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, the film’s executive producer, about the process of making the documentary. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: White Noise is about the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States. Why did you start following the story?

Daniel Lombroso: I started covering the alt-right in 2016. I saw age-old hatreds—racism and anti-Semitism—bubbling up online, on chat forums, but also on college campuses, where I had been just a few years earlier. We started with a short documentary on Richard Spencer, who was then relatively unknown, and in filming a speech he gave in November 2016, we caught a room full of people breaking out into Nazi salutes. Then when Charlottesville happened, nine months later, we knew it had to be a feature film.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg: Charlottesville made it clear that these ideas hadn’t faded after the election. If anything, they were growing stronger.

Goldberg: The film focuses on three main subjects: Spencer, the far-right provocateur Mike Cernovich, and the white-nationalist YouTube star Lauren Southern. What struck you most as you followed them over the past few years?

Lombroso: I was surprised by how cynical and opportunistic they all are. My grandparents survived the Holocaust, and I spent a lot of time hearing from them about World War II and the rise of fascism. You think of it as this monolithic thing, that all of these people are ideologues standing in line ready to achieve whatever grand dream they have: the purity of the white race or, in this case, a white ethnostate. But I quickly found that with the alt-right, there was just a tremendous amount of infighting. They despise each other. And they’re also all branding experts. All of this is turbocharged by social media—they’re using the tools of the internet to bring racism, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy thinking mainstream.

Goldberg: How do you make a film about these people without helping them spread dangerous messages or humanizing their racism?

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg: The potential pitfall of providing a platform for these people—we took that very seriously from day one. We spoke a great deal internally about the necessity to cover this rigorously and accurately and through a highly critical lens, and to provide enough context for our viewers. You hear Daniel in the film confronting all of the subjects about whether they feel any responsibility for their messages contributing to an atmosphere, around the world, of rising hatred and violence. And you see their responses in the film. We realize there are those who object to any coverage of far-right extremism, but these ideas are shaping our world, whether we cover them or not, and we see it as our responsibility as journalists to shine a light on them.

Lombroso: We thought about this question nonstop, every step of the way. It was really important to us not to amplify a fringe voice, someone who doesn’t already have a platform—that is why we ultimately played down some side characters who lack influence and simply want attention. The sad reality is that the three main subjects in the film have huge platforms, in the millions, and serious influence in the modern conservative movement. Social-media companies are starting to crack down, but they’re still able to fundraise. They’re able to spread their ideas. So, I mean, they have a platform, whether we take them seriously or not. And we feel like it’s our job to really engage with those ideas in the most thoughtful way possible, to subject them to scrutiny.

Goldberg: The film doesn’t have any narration or voice-over. How did you decide on this filmmaking approach?

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg: Daniel shot in a very fly-on-the-wall, observational style. He filmed over three years, logging something like 300 hours of footage that really allows the viewer to see behind the facade that these subjects typically present to the mainstream media. We decided against a more talking-head-style approach, interviewing experts from different backgrounds, because the film would lose that uniquely immersive quality—one that situates the viewer’s perspective “inside the movement looking out,” as Daniel has put it. The footage Daniel brought back from the field reveals the subjects’ inconsistencies, and their hypocrisies unfurl in this intimate, cinema verité way. As a result, the film provides an unprecedented view of what makes these ideas so compelling to fans and so dangerous to the rest of the world.

Goldberg: Daniel, you were reporting on subjects who openly express anti-Semitic views. Did they know you are Jewish?

Lombroso: Whenever they asked, I would tell them. Richard Spencer didn’t realize until a year into reporting. And then one day on a road trip to a shoot, he asked me to tell him more about my Italian ancestry—because my last name sounds Italian (I’m actually Eastern European, but my family changed our last name in the 1920s). And that’s when I told him.

Goldberg: And what did he do?

Lombroso: He was taken aback because he thought, I think, that I was his little Italian reporter friend. We were packed in this Honda sedan two-door, and the driver was just clutching the wheel nervously, I’ll always remember, staring at me in the rearview mirror for the rest of the ride. Later that night, Richard went out to dinner and left me with all the Nazi boys, and the driver kind of spread the word that I was Jewish. And that’s when it got a little iffy. They were saying really disgusting things and throwing Nazi salutes in my direction.

Goldberg: What were the disgusting things they said?

Lombroso: Like, a lot of kikes, a lot of that stuff. They were talking about how they revered Dylann Roof, very openly.

Goldberg: There’s something very frightening about these people and the ideologies they’re pushing. There is also something pathetic and tragicomic about them. At the end of this project, are you more or less concerned about this movement and its impact on America?

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg: Personally, I’m more concerned—that, regardless of the motivations of the individuals perpetuating these ideas, the ideas are now loose in social media, and increasingly seeping into mainstream media. And that these ideas are incredibly seductive and have so much traction across social platforms, but also on college campuses, with very young people.

Lombroso: I think the alt-right, as a movement, the way we conceive of it, is essentially dead. But even if the three figures in the film are becoming increasingly irrelevant for various reasons, their ideas are now in the mainstream of the conservative movement and on Fox News every night. There is a deep-seated fear of white demographic decline in this country, and obviously in Europe. And I think that is now the defining fault line in American politics: those who believe in multiculturalism and those who don’t. The Republican Party had their famous autopsy report after the 2012 election, concluding that they needed to attract more minority voters. That never happened. And as long as Donald Trump wins through voter suppression, incitement against minorities, or other means, you know, they’re going to continue to double down.

Goldberg: In some ways, the subjects of the film portray an honest form of Trumpism. Trump, when he’s pushed, will denounce white supremacy. These people don’t bother.

Lombroso: We talked a lot about how much to include Trump in the film. And we ultimately decided that his presence is always felt. He is like the gasoline that powers the engine. The alt-right would not exist without him. And I think Trump would not exist without the alt-right. They’re the base that he needs. One kind of extreme example, not that extreme anymore: Mike Cernovich created the meme on Twitter that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease. A few days later, the conspiracy theory came out of Sean Hannity’s mouth, and then the president’s mouth.

Whether Trump wins or loses, there is such an aggravated base, and so many young people that are being radicalized by these ideas—and social media just incentivizes that behavior. I think we’re going to be dealing with this long after the Trump presidency.