Far-right populism was surging in early 2017, and not only because its apotheosis, Donald Trump was inaugurated in the United States in January. In Europe, hard-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was grabbing headlines by declaring “the end of one world and the birth of another” and “the return of nation-states” as a response to heightened immigration from Mideast and North African countries; in April she would qualify for a runoff against center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron. Britain was still coming to terms with the Brexit referendum of the summer before, in which voters opted to leave the European Union.
And in the Netherlands, controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders was riding a tide of anti-immigration sentiment, calling for a Muslim travel ban in Europe to mirror Trump’s proposed U.S. ban. Wilders, a former speechwriter seeking the prime minister’s office, had spoken at the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump and borrowed so much of the bombastic businessman’s style that he was dubbed the “Dutch Trump” — his PVV (Party for Freedom) even adopted the campaign slogan “Make the Netherlands Great Again.”
Wilders did not win the election. He garnered just over 13% of the vote, taking second place behind incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte. But it was no loss for the firebrand, and a setback in name only for the right-wing populist tide. The PVV gained seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, and Wilders remains a parliamentary leader and the face of the opposition. The prospect is strong that he will challenge for the country’s leadership in the next election.
The Dutch electorate wasn’t the only witness to Wilders’ wild ride. The odyssey was captured by a pair of 2016 Oxford Saïd MBAs, Stephen Robert Morse and Maria Springer. How the filmmakers earned Wilders’ trust and what they saw when they got so close to the notoriously media-hating provocateur is a story almost as wild as his electoral romp across the norms of Dutch politics.
‘YOU SHOULD REACH OUT TO PEOPLE YOU DISAGREE WITH AND LEARN ABOUT THEM’
Whether you’re a journalist or a documentary filmmaker, it’s not easy to gain access to Geert Wilders. For one thing, like Donald Trump, he detests the media. For another, for the last 12 years he has been under 24/7 police protection because of threats to his life.
Wilders has been in the spotlight in Europe for decades. He once compared the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf. He has asserted that Islam is a “totalitarian ideology aimed at establishing tyrannical power over non-Muslims.” He has called Moroccans “scum”; in December 2016 he was convicted in the Netherlands of inciting discrimination against them.
Wilders is a political anomaly in such a left-leaning, tolerant country, which is why his consistent popularity was so troubling for many as the Dutch prepared to go to the polls in March 2017. Indeed, it seemed as though the Dutch election was shaping up to be the latest chapter in a story of right-wing revolution unseen in the West since before World War II. That story is still being written, maybe, though for the moment Wilders’ and Le Pen’s losses have diverted the narrative into more conventional storylines.
Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to get close to Wilders to study his methods and motivations, and to gain a deeper understanding of how right-wing populism operates in Europe. But Morse and Springer and their team managed it — and Morse believes it was his work as a producer on a previous film, Netflix’s Amanda Knox, that helped him gain the politician’s trust. “It’s always a tricky balance to strike, but I learned a few things from the Amanda Knox project about how to treat people fairly. We promised Wilders we would be impartial, and we held true to that,” Morse says.
“None of us agreed with Wilders’ politics, but we wanted to understand him,” he adds. “I really believe you should reach out to the people you disagree with and learn about them, because if you don’t, you’ll find that these divisions get worse.”
‘LEAN’ AND MEAN: FILM COMPANY HAS LITTLE OVERHEAD
EuroTrump, an in-depth study of one of Europe’s most recognizable and divisive politicians, charts Wilders’ rise and explores his motivations and (necessarily) reclusive lifestyle. It premiered in the U.S. last November and became available on Hulu in June. Co-directed by Morse and fellow Oxfordian Nick Hampson, the 90-minute documentary is a production of OBSERVATORY, the film company co-founded by Morse and Springer that employs the “lean” techniques they learned at Oxford and used to great success on Amanda Knox, garnering a pair of Emmy nominations for the portrayal of a young American woman accused, convicted, then ultimately acquitted in the murder of her British roommate in Italy.
“We only shoot the scenes we need, and never use more crew than we absolutely have to,” says Morse, a former journalist whose reporting has appeared in Mother Jones, Fast Company, The Atlantic, The Financial Times, and many other outlets. “By removing any wasteful steps or processes from film production we successfully create what appear to be highly financed projects for relatively small sums of money.”
Morse describes how Springer met the film’s co-director and cinematographer Hampson through a careers fair organized by Oxford Saïd. “Both Maria and I had entrepreneur visas sponsored by Oxford University, and a member of the Oxford’s careers team asked us to come down and present at a career fair,” he says. “Nick happened to be accompanying his girlfriend to the fair, and Maria met him after the talk. Two weeks later, he was on the ground with us filming in the Netherlands.” The EuroTrump team also included undergraduates from across the wider university. Harry Davidson, an Oxford music scholar, composed the film’s soundtrack, while Christ Church History graduate and investigative journalist Frankie Crossley was a co-producer.
WILDERS FOUND FILM FAIR
The idea to film Wilders came in the wake of the 2016 election of Trump, which “shocked and surprised us,” Morse says. “It was a few weeks after the election, and we were looking for another subject for a film. We said, ‘Let’s look elsewhere, let’s look for away from America where such a thing could also happen.’ At the time, Wilders was in first place, he was in the lead to win the election.”
Critics say EuroTrump is evenhanded in its portrayal of Wilders. One wrote that it was “refreshing to see a subject like this approached from a different angle.” As Morse says, the filmmakers did not “overtly offer our views.” Viewers are left in no doubt, however, of the politician’s radical and controversial views, reinforced by clips of inflammatory TV interviews and rebutting statements from historians, journalists, and members of the Islamic community.
Wilders’ own verdict on the film? He found EuroTrump “fair,” Morse says. “He wrote an article in Breitbart saying the movie was the only fair journalistic portrayal of him. He usually feels that he’s getting slaughtered by the media.
“The media cast this as a loss for him, but it was not a loss for him. It was a victory for him,” Morse says. “He came in second place out of 28 candidates. Because the media said he lost, it looked like he lost — but in his mind, he won. And he did win. Second place out of 28 candidates is incredibly impressive, so it’s ridiculous to say he lost. It’s just the global media being lazy — and I say that as a former journalist.”
With EuroTrump complete, Morse and Springer have moved on to their next project, an exploration of a criminal case in the Deep South of America. “I always tell people that when you make a film, it’s like getting a master’s degree in some topic,” Morse says. “I’ve got a master’s in Dutch politics, and before that I got a master’s in the Italian justice system. And now I’m getting a master’s in the history of the United States South.”