Home Film Up Against a World of Trolls: What’s Next for Pepe?

Up Against a World of Trolls: What’s Next for Pepe?

by Andrew J. Salazar

The second part of our conversation with the duo behind Feels Good Man, Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini, dives into the more toxic levels of this subject matter. Where we previously explored the film’s origins and schemes with Pepe the frog, here we tackle the elephant in the room: internet trolls. While making this documentary, Pepe brought along a unique, heavy case of burdens to say the least. How did Jones and Angelini choose to unpack this case of online hate and bigotry? The answer is just as complicated as Pepe’s story to begin with.

Feels Good Man may very well be the first successful documentary to feature insight from self-proclaimed ‘4chaners’. The notorious internet forum plays an integral role in Pepe’s co-opting from the alt-right. Jones and Angelini interview two 4chaners on camera, ‘Pizza’ and Mills, with the latter actually boasting a level of notoriety (ironically, Mills was once a meme on 4chan himself). Both people opened their doors to the Feels Good Man crew and the result is an eye-opening lens into a world that is all too familiar to a younger generation, while being completely alien to an older one.

Trekking into uncharted territory to uncover the past, miraculously, lead to covering an unpredictable future. The film reaches a finish line of hope, as we see Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters adopt Pepe for their own means (and memes). In addition to reaching out to former internet trolls, we talk about how the duo managed to get words from actual protesters on-site. The conclusion to our exclusive Feels Food Man coverage, we also rightfully contemplate on what’s next for Pepe. For once, thanks to everything that it took from these two filmmakers and their team, the future looks bright for this laid-back frog.

Film still courtesy of Feels Good Man

You interviewed 4chaners ‘Pizza’ and Mills on camera. Not only did you have them on camera, but they allowed you into their homes and lifestyle. Can you talk about how you got these subjects on camera?

Arthur Jones: When Giorgio and I were talking about how to cover this stuff, we felt like most documentaries about online subject matter kind of just rely on journalists or experts to sort of do the heavy lifting. And we really wanted this story to be from a first-person perspective. If we’re having Matt tell you the story of Pepe as a comic book character he created, then we also need the first-person perspective of people that were using Pepe as a meme on these message boards. Before I started shooting, I spent months researching this and even when I was researching by just going on 4chan – there’s a real learning curve to 4chan. There’s a whole different way that people format the way that they talk to each other on there.

I needed someone to almost, like guide me through that. And Mills was the person that ultimately, you know, I reached out to a handful of people but Mills was the person that responded. I think Mills responded because Mills is someone who unlike most people on 4chan, he wasn’t anonymous. If you go to boards like Robot9000, you will see Mills’ picture on there. So Mills kind of made himself available as a 4chan person and he also had a handful of YouTube videos that I found. One of them that I just kind of randomly clicked on, it was only listed as the date it was made on and had very few views. It just happened to be a video of Mills laying in bed, he has his cellphone up and he’s doing like a little blog before bed. The first thing he says is, “What does Pepe mean to me?” He kind of goes through, “Pepe is a sad frog, Pepe is a happy frog, Pepe is a smug frog.” When I saw that video, I just had a feeling that he was going to talk to me. So I did some sleuthing, I found his email and then we started to have conversations after that. He was really open and generous with his time for this, we appreciated that. He put himself in a vulnerable position being in the film. So it was an interesting process for I think him and us.

Giorgio Angelini: But it also speaks to another kind of thing: the sanctioning of how social media works. I think most are really familiar with the kind of reward system that something like Instagram gives people – you post some content of you on an expensive vacation, somewhere sitting in a pool and drinking a Mai Tai, and you’re getting a bunch of FOMO [fear of missing out] likes from your followers. It’s very aspirational and 4chan works in a really similar way. It just has different inputs, right? You’re dangling a different cherry, but want the same result, which is attention. Behind this film, there is a quieter commentary about how the attention economy corrupts us in some way.

Arthur Jones: On 4chan, even though it is anonymous, ultimately, the threads can stay alive or the people that become well known in that platform are the people that post the edgiest content. So, you know, the edgiest of the edge lords – if you think about that as an attention economy, it’s the same way as Twitter and Instagram. People do create personal brands around that. So someone like Mills is aware of that and 4chan sort of becomes the social media that is his brand.

Film still courtesy of Feels Good Man

I have to bring up the Hong Kong shoot, because you can almost never anticipate events like this when making a documentary. So as everything was beginning to unfold, how did you two get a crew in Hong Kong to actually get words from real-life protesters?

Arthur Jones: There were so many things in the second half of this film that came to us in a way we never would have predicted first going in. Certainly Hong Kong happening, but then also the way that we were able to film that protest – it was a real gift to us as filmmakers. We had gotten all of these text messages when the news came out that Pepe was now having this transformational moment in Hong Kong being used by pro-democracy protesters. It was covered in a variety of outlets like The New York Times and Giorgio and I both were just getting messages from like crew and friends.

By pure coincidence, one of the people who we had interviewed in the film, his name is Aaron Sankin – he walks you through that moment where Pepe basically becomes Trump – he’s a journalist and had just moved to Hong Kong randomly for another job. So we emailed Aaron and he was like, “There is a two mile long Pepe protest happening not far from where my apartment is.” The protest was going to be a two mile long human chain where everyone would stand and hold hands, but instead of actually holding hands, between each of them would be a Pepe, either a homemade Pepe or a Pepe stuffed animal.

Aaron was willing to go cover it for us, but he’s not a camera person. Then Giorgio found this young cinematographer named Diana Chan. So Aaron and Diana went out and covered that protest on our behalf, which was really great, but it was just one of those moments. Like it was great that Aaron was able to appear in the film earlier and now all of a sudden he gives us this amazing ending. Honestly, we were lucky, but occasionally luck feels somehow, I don’t know, more intrinsically? There were moments where I really felt like the universe just opened up and gave us this movie, and that was one of those.

When you two first committed to make a documentary on such a political topic, there’s no beating around the bush, you essentially painted like a target on your back for this whole ugly pocket of the internet. Did that intimidate you guys at all or was it something that you took on proudly?

Giorgio Angelini: For sure. I mean, it was something that we were always actively talking about and definitely as we were bringing people into the project – making them aware of that possibility. We definitely have taken precautions to kind of wipe our data from the internet and be smart about that stuff. Which by the way, it’s f*cking insane how much personal data is just out on the internet. But at the end of the day, these guys are the bullies and they target the way trolling works. The try to shame people out of their passion and make them feel embarrassed for giving a sh*t. And Arthur and I are just like, f*ck that. We’re willing to do whatever it takes for this. Hopefully, by making a movie that can help in any small way, like convincing people to use the internet in much cooler ways.

Film still courtesy of Feels Good Man

Arthur Jones: The other thing is, we made this movie largely in secret and that was on purpose. But I felt that we were both much more concerned about making a bad movie than getting trolled. I want to say, Matt has been really brave throughout this process, putting himself out there and just dealing with these things that are uncomfortable for him. It’s not in the movie, but we’ve seen Matt interact with people that have sent him negative emails or something like that. Matt really just comes at them from a place of disarming compassion. The way he approaches a troll is like, “Hey thanks for writing! I’m sorry you feel this way. If we were able to have a conversation right now, maybe you’d feel different or maybe we’d have some stuff that we feel in common about. Disagreeing isn’t a bad thing!” He always gets in these very earnest and loving conversations. He’s always ending them like, “If you were here, I’d give you a big hug.”

That’s something that maybe seems trivial. But if you really approach things from a real sense of consistency and earnestness, it’s something that allows you to effect a change in people. I’ve seen him email with trolls and by the end of it, whatever aggression they were shooting towards him, he’s sort of disarmed them. So I think if people view this film at face value, they come to it with a sense of openness even if you’re someone who’s on the opposite side of the cultural divide from us, you’re going to recognize that this film stands above all of this sort of anger, cynicism, and aggression. Its the story of Matt and Pepe, not the story of trolls, not the story of 4chan, Pepe belongs to Matt and this is their story.

Feels Good Man feels like the next step in tackling meme culture. As silly as it may sound, memes undeniably run through society’s bloodline. I’m not sure if you guys saw, but there was another SXSW documentary this year on the internet culture behind the Wojack meme, TFW NO GF.

Arthur Jones: I saw that! Gosh, it’s wild.

Again, it might sound ridiculous, but memes are unavoidable when talking about the current zeitgeist. Do you guys feel like you’ve opened a Pandora’s box of sorts by making a successful film on Pepe?

Giorgio Angelini: Artists and things alike, this film in a lot of ways, it’s really about media literacy and getting people who maybe aren’t involved in meme culture to understand how powerful memes are for good and bad. The way that they’re embedded with so much meaning that seems so illegible and legible at the same time, depending on who you are. Like Michael Bloomberg spent I don’t know how many millions hiring people to make memes for him. It’s a part of life now, you know?

Arthur Jones: Culture is intimately attached to memes because people are innately creative. Memes really allow anyone to be part of a social creativity. It allows people that maybe don’t even think about themselves as creative to be creative, to write amazing jokes, know all this sorts of stuff. Memes are really this crazy way that culture is now democratizing itself and you’re right, they are serious. Memes allow people to not only express themselves but also build coalition around each other. It’s a way that people can basically feel as though they are part of a movement – by creating memes they are creating like their own propaganda for whatever they believe in.

So I do think this film is opening up a discussion that is important and isn’t silly, and is only going to get more important. Pepe is a unique example of this because Pepe is basically viral because he is an avatar for people’s emotionality. He was the feels good frog, he was the feels bad frog, he was the sad frog, he was the smug frog… for whatever reason, this JPEG of a frog really resonates with people. People have personal feelings about it and there’s going to be different trends, modifications of this kind of stuff as we go forward. It’s going to move on from Pepe, it’s going to be something else that is surprising and will move through culture in this really unexpected way.

In a very ironic and timely way, you could say that Pepe is like ‘patient zero’.

Arthur Jones: Sure! (laughs)

And not to make light of recent times, but it always comes back to the frog. You don’t know why, but it does.

Arthur Jones: Giorgio has been calling, you know, instead of the dog whistle, it’s the frog whistle.

Go behind the origins of Feels Good Man

Our  ★★★★★ review of the film now available on VOD and digital!

Follow managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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