Most people had a bad 2021, but perhaps no one had a worse year than David Dobrik. At the beginning of last year, the YouTube sensation and head of the crew known as the Vlog Squad was on top of the world and poised to cross over into the mainstream, having lined up countless blue-chip brand deals and even an eponymous pizza franchise called Doughbrick’s.
In March 2021, however, Insider published a bombshell article accusing him of having facilitated and profited off of the sexual assault of an anonymous woman by his then-friend and collaborator “Durte” Dom Zeglaitis. The article alleged that the woman, who was 20 at the time, was plied with alcohol by Vlog Squad members, rendering her unable to consent to sex with Zeglaitis; and that he assaulted her while Dobrik and other Vlog Squad members listened outside the door, with Dobrik later uploading the footage onto YouTube. (Zeglaitis has denied the allegations, stating he believed it was consensual; Dobrik denied any knowledge of it being sexual assault, and the video, titled “She Should Not Have Played With Fire!!,” was later removed at the woman’s request, though not before it received millions of views.) Many of Dobrik’s sponsors backed out of their deals with him, prompting him to release a widely criticized apology video on his secondary YouTube channel. (He later posted a more in-depth second apology video.)
To make matters worse, in April 2021, footage of Vlog Squad member Jeff Wittek getting seriously injured in a stunt involving an excavator leaked online, with Dobrik fielding allegations of fostering a dangerous work environment after it was revealed that he was driving the construction equipment. Though Wittek initially said he did not blame Dobrik for the incident, their relationship has since soured, with Wittek revealing on his podcast this March that their friendship was over and hinted that he planned to sue Dobrik. “Let’s just let the courts decide and you’ll have to sign a paper that says, ‘Yeah, this was a lie, and I’m guilty of this and that,’ and we can go that route about it,” Wittek said on his podcast.
When YouTuber and director Casey Neistat started documenting Dobrik’s everyday life three years ago, capturing the footage that would become his new documentary Under the Influence, he had no idea that any of this would unfold. Rather, Neistat tells Rolling Stone, he was interested in how Dobrik represented a new wave of YouTube stardom, and the implications of what being a YouTuber actually meant. At the time, Dobrik was posting slice-of-life videos featuring his Vlog Squad, soon pivoting to lavish giveaways and increasingly extreme stunts. “There was something entirely unique about the videos he was making,” says Neistat. “They weren’t expressions of creativity. They weren’t about filmmaking. They weren’t about things I understood to be what makes a good YouTube video. They were portraits, little windows of life in early adulthood with no limit to resources and no responsibility.”
Under the Influence, which premieres at SXSW on March 12, is a slow-burn portrait of a toxic power dynamic that binds a group of very young, wildly successful people together, and the lengths they’re willing to go to to achieve astronomical levels of fame — as well as the ringmaster at the center of the circus, directing their every move. (Full disclosure: Rolling Stone‘s parent company, Penske Corp., owns a significant stake in SXSW.)
Like many of Dobrik’s subscribers, Neistat was initially entranced by Dobrik’s enthusiastic, puppyish demeanor and the easy rapport he had with the other members of the Vlog Squad. “It’s understandable to watch his videos and not question the friendships you’re seeing,” he says. “It was only gently scratching the surface that I started to realize what was going on.”
From the very beginning, Neistat says, it was evident that boundaries were being crossed within the world that Dobrik had built, resulting in increasingly dangerous stunts being performed for the camera. “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt,” a grinning Dobrik says on camera during a stunt involving a Vlog Squad member. Neistat says he started questioning the power dynamics central to the group when he asked Dobrik during their first sitdown interview whether he and the Vlog Squad were friends or coworkers. “I expected him to be offended by the question,” he says. “But he paused and said, ‘When the camera comes on they know what they’re supposed to do.'”
In one particularly stomach-turning scene that takes place on a private jet, Dobrik directs members of the Vlog Squad to engage in increasingly wild yet largely innocuous behavior — shots of vodka being drizzled into their mouths, etc. — until he commands one Vlog Squad member, Corinna Kopf, to take off her shirt and pretend to show her breasts to the others while they applaud. Kopf complies, yet the degree to which Dobrik directs the action — and the degree to which everyone unfailingly follows his lead — is genuinely uncomfortable, to say the least.
When the Insider story came out, closely followed by the details of Wittek’s accident emerging, Neistat says Dobrik was reluctant to appear on-camera again for the documentary; they did one final, tense interview, in which Dobrik largely takes an unrepentant stance, claiming to have had no idea what happened between Zeglaitis and his alleged victim and that he did not view the allegations against Zeglaitis as being a reflection on him. (Dobrik largely assumed this stance in his own interview with Rolling Stone last June, saying he “couldn’t see how [the allegations] were connected to me” and claiming he was “not aware of what was going on.” He also claimed to have cut off contact with Zeglaitis after the woman came forward, though public social media posts suggest otherwise.)
Neistat has not spoken to Dobrik since that final interview. “A lot has transpired in that time. I don’t know how I would characterize my relationship with him now,” Neistat says. “[I] think he changed over the course of my reporting, my documenting of his career. I think you can see that in the lack of seriousness in his tone where he’s sort of playing a bit of a character and the lovable, goofy David. He takes a much more serious tone and owns who he is in that final interview.”
Some on social media who have not seen Neistat’s film have categorized it as a “redemption documentary” for Dobrik, which it is not: it is unsparing in its criticisms of influencer culture and the damage it can wreak on others’ lives, and how Dobrik specifically abdicated his enormous responsibility as a creator and hurt many in the process. The film ends on a dejected note, tracking how Dobrik has largely rebounded from the controversies and dodged accountability: he has continued posting vlogs and podcast episodes, even hosting his very own Discovery + series, which premiered last fall.
But Neistat stresses that the film is less about Dobrik specifically, and how he should best be held accountable, and more about the dangers of the YouTube ecosystem in general, in which sensationalism and clickbait are rewarded and there are few infrastructural elements in place to ensure others’ safety.
“David is kind of part of a pattern. The fastest path to getting eyeballs is with sensational content, full stop. If it’s sensational it will garner more views. That pursuit of sensationalism unchecked invariably ends in disaster. We’ve seen that time and time again,” he says. “[I] don’t know what the solve is for it, or if it even exists. But I think it speaks to 1) the dangers of new media, and 2) human nature. There is an audience for this. And the bigger the audience, the more rewards someone gets. Without absolving David of his wrongdoing or apologizing him, I do think there’s a greater question of culpability when it comes to 20 million clicking subscribers, and countless blue chip companies writing him huge checks. What culpability do the viewers have? And I don’t know if there is an answer to that question.”