A year ago I sat down with a couple of friends and their five-year-old daughter to watch the trailer for my film: The Rise of Jordan Peterson. It takes viewers through a rollercoaster of jolting soundbites ranging from “Jordan Peterson changed my life” to “[he] needs to have his teaching licence revoked”, painting a polarising picture of the beloved and reviled bestselling author and public intellectual.
Once the two minutes were up, little Sara looked at me and asked: “You know that man with the beard? Is he good or is he bad?”
I love the honesty of children. Throughout the past three years of documenting Jordan Peterson’s phenomenal, controversial, influential catapult onto the world stage following his public criticism of Canadian human rights legislation, political correctness, identity politics and the release of his overwhelmingly successful self-help book 12 Rules for Life, I’ve been asked the same question Sara asked me in different forms by journalists, strangers, friends and colleagues. Whose side are you on? Do you think he’s right or wrong? Is he having a positive impact or is he dangerous?
I intentionally mirrored the essence of this question in the trailer as a starting place for the film. Not only does Peterson’s name divide a room, but any two media sources will paint starkly divergent pictures of him and his ideas. Of course this is not unique to Peterson, but it is striking.
It seems that being objective or unbiased is no longer viewed as a high value in journalism or documentary film-making. The keynote address at the last Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival, focused on the question: whose stories are being told by whom? The popular and applauded ethos in documentary film-making now is identity-driven stories made by people of those identities.
Part of the rationale for this is the fact that there’s a history of insensitive and ignorant film-making that caricatured indigenous peoples and members of minority groups, which has led to this approach to documentary film culture. We also know there’s no such thing as being unbiased and we know that people who are not from particular identity groups are less likely to understand the experience of people within those groups. But we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater if the new moral imperative is to be solely one with your tribe and to tell positive stories to advance the goals of that tribe, especially at the expense of truth. One can argue that all art is propaganda, but there are certainly degrees of difference.
While following this story, the undercurrent of the culture wars was very salient to me. I was struck by the way Peterson rose to stardom as a polarising figure, embodying both the hero and the villain. So much so that even my documentary about him has become controversial. Complaints by cinema staff led to three screening cancellations — one for a week-long run in Toronto that was scheduled to follow our premiere in September.
And all of this came after many mainstream and arthouse cinemas declined to show the film because of fear of controversy, fear of social reprimand, or ethical and safety concerns related to drawing in Jordan Peterson fans. The film isn’t a celebratory fluff piece, however, nor is it a hit piece, but even when this was acknowledged, the nuance of the film was also seen as a setback. People will pay money to watch feel-good films about their heroes, not to see complexity, I was told.
I began this film in 2015 with interest in a human story. But when Peterson published the controversial Professor Against Political Correctness videos in 2016, he drew a line at what he believed he should be forced to say, and many people drew a line at him — it was no longer ethical to humanise him. It forced me to consider the question: as a film-maker, when does it become unethical to explore a person or topic in a film? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and I continue to land in the same place: I think any person or topic is fair game, but it’s the approach and treatment that matters.
Interestingly, I’ve also faced resistance to the film’s human approach from a completely different angle. Some people want to engage with the myth of Jordan Peterson only in the realm of ideas, not as a human being. They don’t want to hear from his wife and close friends (and enemies); they want to hear him talk about philosophy and religion and the meaning of life.
On one hand, I understand the desire to find the discussion of ideas in the film, if that’s what drew you to Peterson. After all, that’s what caught my attention 15 years ago, but those ideas are already all over the internet. I wasn’t interested in a talking-head film about ideas; I wanted to explore how living out those ideas manifests in real life. And it’s messy. I can’t help wonder if deep down this reaction is a rejection of the discomfort that comes with the unknown and seeing vulnerable human beings in a messy world where theories become imperfect.
Similarly, the cancellations of our film screenings came from staff complaints of discomfort with the film content. To see Peterson as a human being — captivating, flawed, vulnerable — is to come out of the ideological zone of right and wrong, of the identity-based ethos of privileged white man versus vulnerable trans people, of black and white. Such social analysis based on identity does have its value, but it’s limiting and, taken strictly, it can be dangerous.
Working on this film forced me to endure uncomfortable ethical questioning. And it seemed to me that if there’s one thing I could contribute to the culture wars, I hoped it could be a framing that is grounded in humanity.
The trailer for The Rise of Jordan Peterson ends with an impromptu moment I captured while setting up an interview with Peterson. He unexpectedly said: “Are we ready? Then we can do this. This is what I actually look like” as he looked into the camera lens. Then he leaned down and pulled a mask over his face and said: “This is what people who don’t like me think I look like.” The green mask with devil horns, a Kwakwaka’wakw wild-man mask carved by his friend, the artist Charles Joseph, looks like a monster.
There are many layers to this moment. Peterson believes that you can’t be a good person unless you’re also a monster. You need to meet and understand your dark side in order to avoid letting it take over you. You also need to have a spine so you don’t become a pushover, easily overtaken by someone else’s scheme. Another layer is the idea cited by the Russian author and critic of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good and evil runs through the human heart.
At that moment on camera, I asked Peterson: “Which one is real?”
“Good question,” he said as he placed the mask down. With serious intensity, he replied: “They’re both real.”
Every good film reveals both the specific and the universal. And yes, Peterson is both, and so are we all.
The Rise of Jordan Peterson is available for pre-order on Apple TV and will be available to watch on other digital platforms worldwide on 8 November