INTERVIEW: JOHN WALKER ON ASSHOLES: A THEORY
Canadian documentarian John Walker isn't pulling any punches with his latest film, Assholes: A Theory. Inspired by the book by Aaron James, the film explores not only how to identify the assholes in your life but the way society makes spaces for assholes or even encourages their behaviour. In a wide-ranging exploration that takes in everything from Silicon Valley to the reign of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Walker attempts to decode what makes the asshole-archetype so very magnetic to us all. Before the film's screening as part of the DocEdge festival, which Walker will attend, he spoke to the Weekend Herald.
You begin the film with a question - do you need to be an asshole to be a great artist? What was it about that question and drove you to make the film?
It was a question a colleague initially asked me and it got me thinking about "assholery".
I read Assholes: A Theory, which hit on all the ideas I was thinking about at the time. I read the book and became very interested in the subject.
The film draws on such a vast array of subjects and pulls them into a tapestry of "assholery" - how did you source the people you interview?
At first I was going after assholes but I realised I didn't want to give them more attention. Mainly the people I'm talking to are those critical of the behaviour, the author of the book particularly. Then I turned to people interested in the book and John Cleese came up - he had tweeted about it. After that, what I did was I identified "breeding grounds" of this sort of behaviour and the people I wanted to talk to. In the US, I identified Washington, Wall St, Hollywood and Silicon Valley as major breeding grounds. The 2008 Financial Crisis was a classic example of assholes in charge. And Silicon Valley has its roots in the "liberal left" - we're gonna make the world a better place, that sort of thing. Ultimately, we wanted to be non-partisan - you can be an asshole on the left and the right.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film unpacks the toxic assholery of some parts of Canada, which is kind of contrary to what people perceive as Canadian culture. Is it a growing crisis there?
There's a danger of assholery spreading. There's this notion of a media addict society - with the internet we can't protect ourselves from this kind of behaviour that's being expanded through social media. You can't ignore Trump as much as you'd like to. What concerns me about assholes is that they can be very smart and successful. That's not the case with Trump - he's neither smart nor successful. But assholes can be very smart, which is why we focused on Berlusconi, for example. Very early on, we decided we weren't going to deal with Trump, we'd leave him to be the elephant in the room. Berlusconi is much more complex, much more interesting than Trump.
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The segment on the Berlusconi years really unpacked why we're drawn to assholes, their magnetism. Do you think we'll ever be able to reject assholes from public life? Asshole is a new usage; it's an American term that came out at the end of World War II. It was a kind of working class usage, a description of someone who uses their entitlement to abuse their position of power. It goes right back to how we bring up our children and our moral values. We see toddlers pushing each other and spitting on each other to get what they want. If it were adults, we wouldn't let that slide. We have to be conscious in pushing back this behaviour in our young people. But in a sense I'm hopeful - the millennial generation seems to me to be thoughtful and generally less assholey. But we still need to be careful.
During production, did you run into any real assholes?
I did have the pleasure of writing letters to people I considered to be Canadian assholes, saying we're making a film about assholes and wanted them to be a part of it. I thought maybe they'd call me back but none of them did.
Would you say there's an element of the asshole in all of us?
I think what's important is that you ask yourself the question - have I been an asshole at some point? And the answer for everyone is yes. I'm not standing on a high ground here and suggesting I haven't been an asshole, I've been there. It's something we all need to be wary of. But on most occasions, if someone acts like an asshole but realises it and apologises, that doesn't make you a total asshole. Just a normal person.