Influence tells the story of Tim Bell, an English advertising executive who founded the public relations firm Bell Pottinger. With a client roster containing dictators, corrupt politicians and shady businessmen, the firm's reach was global and often opaque. The film charts Bell's career and is anchored around a series of interviews with the PR man conducted just before his death in 2018.
Directors Richard Poplak and Diana Neille intersperse the interviews with the story of Bell's early resume. Getting his start as an adman in the 1970s for Satchi & Satchi, things get interesting when the firm is engaged by then opposition leader Margaret Thatcher. She wants Bell to help her become Prime Minister. He does, producing infamous political attack ads, and keeps doing so as Thatcher enjoys more election success.
Then Bell founds Bell Pottinger, promoting his access to key decision makers. The firm operates on the principle of taking on any job; moral qualms not a factor. The result sees Bell Pottinger working for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, as well as Russian oligarchs, and Jacob Zuma's notoriously corrupt administration in South Africa. And this is where it all goes wrong for Bell. Messing in South African politics proves the downfall of Bell Pottinger and the firm is shamed and shuttered.
Influence proves compelling when unravelling the story of the global spin-doctoring firm and its often unconscionable work. The lengthy interviews with Bell, and his wholesale denial of any wrongdoing, contrasts dramatically with other interviewees who clearly describe Bell Pottinger's squalid practices.
The story of Bell and his work is often a complicated one and digressions, including interviews with peripheral players and discussions of Russian meddling and fake news, muddies the main narrative at times. Especially as the story of Bell Pottinger's abrupt downfall, brought about by dedicated investigative journalists and brave South African citizens, is so enthralling by itself.
Influence is screening online as part of the South African Film Festival 2021. The film will be available to stream on the 12th of May. Find more information on the festival's official website.