Feels Good Man: The tragic, hilarious and vital story of Pepe the Frog

Depending on who you ask, Pepe the Frog could be an adorable stoner who likes to pee with his pants all the way down, or he could be a hateful meme from the darkest corner of the internet. 

Feels Good Man, now available in New Zealand on streaming service DocPlay, tells the insane, hilarious and tragic true story of how Pepe transformed from a good natured cartoon to being branded an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. 

The film follows Matt Furie, the soft-spoken, well-meaning artist who created Pepe and now struggles to reclaim him. Director Arthur Jones, a personal friend of Furie's, told Newshub the film started out as a form of redemptive biopic for the fictional frog. 

"When I started to see the transformations that Pepe was going through in 2016 and 2017, I had a mixed set of emotions. I felt as though Pepe was lost, or he'd been stolen," said Jones.

However once filming was underway, he realised Matt and Pepe's story was part of something much larger.  

"The way we communicate on social media is the most transformative thing that has happened to culture in this generation. It's the biggest story of our time. I didn't set out to make a story about the internet necessarily, in the beginning I just wanted to make a story about Matt."

From the QAnon cult to endless floods of disinformation, the internet is clearly having a drastic and often terrifying effect on culture. However, finding ways to articulate exactly how it affects us can feel overwhelming. 

Jones said he hopes his film helps personalise and contextualise some of the madness.

"Everyone has felt as though reality has been hijacked from them at a certain moment because of the things that are going on online, whether that's misinformation or trolling. Matt really has a story that everyone can see themselves within."

Much of Pepe's transformation took place on fringe forums like 4chan and 8chan, where he acted as a mascot attached to virtually every post. The Christchurch terrorist frequented 8chan, where he posted about his attack minutes before carrying it out.  

According to Jones, while Feels Good Man was never about sanitising or excusing the worst form of internet trolls, it does attempt to understand them.

"We wanted to know; why would someone choose to sit in their basement for hours on end, trying to eke out a meager living by creating internet content and ingratiating yourself with other equally kind of dejected people?"

'Taking the red pill' is a slang term used by the alt-right which refers to the moment someone agrees with the sexist and racist ideologies they embrace. Jones has personal insight, saying he was 'proto-redpilled' growing up.

"If you take the red pill, you believe in a Darwinian hierarchy to life. That's the only definition of human potential," said Jones.

"Therefore, feminism is like an unjustified degradation of the earned hierarchy of patriarchy. Affirmative action is degrading the earned hierarchy of colonialism. 

"I grew up very conservative in a small town. I felt as though I was a social reject in high school. I was this odd mix of very self-righteous and self-loathing. If I had been younger, I might have found my way to 4chan."

Boards like 4chan were founded on the idea that you could have an internet persona divorced from your real life, but Feels Good Man producer Giorgio Angelini said many problems stem from the distinction between online and offline becoming increasingly arbitrary.

"With the commoditisation of the internet and social media these two realities are now completely interwoven and indistinguishable. It's having profound consequences on our psyche and our lives."

While the film tackles some troubling topics, it also celebrates the infinite capacity for creativity and meaningful connection to be found online. 

"The internet allows us to see how other people live, allows us to have empathy for others, to collaborate and to talk to each other," said Jones. 

"Matt offers a ray of hope in that he's a guy with simple pleasures he uses to balance against the darker elements at work which are forces we're all dealing with. So connecting with family, making something you care about and being engaged in your world - we hope that's what the film is, a reconfirmation of those simple truths."

When asked how he feels about our collective ability to tackle the issues his film raises, Angelini said optimism is the only option.

"I personally feel hopeful because I think you have to be. If you submit yourself to cynicism, that's where facism rejoices."