Documentarian Adam Curtis Dissects the World that Gave Rise to Trump

In Hypernormalisation (2016), Adam Curtis not only anticipates Trump’s victory, but also zeroes in on the abject disbelief and shock that followed in its wake.

Still from “Hypernormalisation” (2016) (all images via BBC iPlayer unless noted otherwise)

Towards the end of Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, Hypernormalisation (2016), the BBC filmmaker and journalist spotlights Donald Trump’s constant policy shifts, his utilization of the extreme racist right, and the trivialization of his primary campaign by liberal onlookers and the media. Curtis ends the segment with an examination of social media bubbles, one of the many factors subsequently cited by journalists as instrumental to Trump’s victory. The filmmaker’s narration is accompanied by eerie footage of dimly lit server farms:

The liberals were outraged by Trump, but they expressed their anger in cyberspace — so it had no effect. The algorithms made sure it only spoke to people who already agreed with them. Instead, ironically, their waves of angry messages and tweets benefited the large corporations who ran the social media platforms. As one analyst put it, ‘angry people click more.’ It meant that the radical fury that came like waves across the Internet no longer had the power to change the world. Instead, it was becoming a fuel that was feeding the new systems of power, and making them ever more powerful. None of the liberals could possibly imagine that Donald Trump would ever win the nomination …

Hypernormalisation was released on BBC iPlayer (the broadcaster’s online streaming service) on October 16, just under a month before election day. Curtis had not only anticipated Trump’s victory, but also zeroed in on the abject disbelief and shock that followed in its wake. Following the election, Curtis’s analysis of Trump had shifted from thesis to historic fact. The film, which includes C-Span’s footage of Seth Meyers excoriating the future president at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, had taken on a new, sobering inflection. The camera centers on Trump’s glowering reaction to the comedian before switching to a shot of President Obama laughing uncontrollably. Five years later, the two men would be sitting in the oval office, solemnly shaking hands before the cameras of the world’s media. Part of Curtis’s extraordinary talent as a filmmaker is his knack for culling fragments of archival footage that crackle with emotional resonance. Watching Hypernormalisation, one can’t help but wonder whether Trump’s resolve to become one of the most powerful men on earth was realized in that very room on May 1st, 2011.

Composite of footage from the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (via Youtube/C-Span)

Curtis’s American viewership has slowly but gradually grown since the release of his three-part series, The Power of Nightmares, in 2004. The three films traced the rise of Islamic extremism, arguing that the threat of Al Qaeda was not only exaggerated, but that its ideology paralleled many of the central tenets of neo-conservativism. In 2012, e-flux organized The Desperate Edge of Now, an exhibition dedicated to Curtis’s films. A year later, the Park Avenue Armory staged Massive Attack V Adam Curtis, a rock-driven “video spectacle” during which Curtis — using one of his signature narrative devices — weaved together seemingly unconnected figures and events, including Donald and Ivanka Trump, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, Jane Fonda, “everyone in Goldman Sachs who made a killing in 2008,” and the Chernobyl disaster.

Curtis’s films are fundamentally about power, how it’s obfuscated and where it really resides. His stories, built up through the use of rich archival material and music, are constructed as overarching grand narratives. He typically centers on a particular idea, tracing its interpretation and implementation by different persons and movements. For instance, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) focuses on the notion of the ecosystem, namely the belief that nature can stabilize itself. The filmmaker follows the concept’s influence on economic discourse, computer networks, communal living, and genetics. You know you’re watching a Curtis film when you hear the phrase “this is a story about how….”

During a talk at his 2012 e-flux exhibition, Curtis critiqued the rise of individualism and implored the audience to “surrender themselves” to movements with ideals and ideas that they admired. This, Curtis argued, was “difficult in our age” because the culture of individualism has resulted in people not wanting to “give themselves to other things.” It was a striking departure from his prior focus on how ideas and mass movements have often been implemented with disastrous consequences. I asked Curtis about the shift in his thinking (you can hear the exchange at the 131-minute mark here):

There are two answers to that. One, I’m a creature of my time. I have made a series of films that have analyzed why the optimistic visions of the past 100 years didn’t quite work out as they were supposed to […] The other is, yeah, it is really dangerous [to surrender to mass movements] … and that’s why we distrust it. The generation who came out of [World War II] were frightened of mass movements. They had seen what it had done. They promoted the idea of the free individual as an alternative. My argument now is that we’re sort of trapped by that […] You’re not really going to be able to challenge something unless you unite people. That’s what makes people powerful. It’s what the trade unions were about. You’re much more powerful when you are in a group than if you’re on your own. And I think since 2008 people have increasingly — or certainly in my country — come to realize that alone they are much less powerful. But no one’s offering them a way of uniting. But I mean you’re right. I’m being a hypocrite. It’s true.

Curtis was — in a stereotypically British manner — being hard on himself. The shift in his thinking wasn’t a contradiction but a development. The entrenchment of individualism has left people divided and without agency. This is why, Curtis argues, that efforts such as Occupy and the Arab Spring have had limited success. Although both movements successfully utilized the internet to bring people together, they failed to proffer any alternative visions of the future. Meanwhile, the failure of Western governments to deal with disasters, such as the refugee crisis and rampant inequality, has allowed reactionary actors to enter the world stage, manipulating the truth in order to keep their atomized citizens powerless, disunited, and confused. Our fear of any alternative future, combined with our pining for an impossible political stasis, has finally come home to roost. This is the premise with which Hypernormalisation opens. “This film will tell the story of how we got to this strange place,” Curtis states. “It is about how over the past 40 years, politicians, financiers, and technological utopians — rather than face up to the complexities of the world — retreated. Instead, they constructed a simple vision of the world in order to hang onto power. And as this false world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring.”

Anthropologist Alexei Yurchak coined the term ‘hypernormalisation’ to describe the Soviet Union during its latter years. The country’s citizens knew that the reality presented by its leaders was a lie. Food was scarce, industry was failing, and yet everyone was expected to maintain the USSR’s façade as a formidable world power. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, everyone was surprised. Even its own citizens had bought into the fakeness. “You were so much a part of the system, that it was impossible to see beyond it,” Curtis explains. “The fakeness was hypernormal.” Curtis’s use of the term suggests that we’re now laboring under a similar delusion. The film’s title also happens to chime with the post-election calls to fight the “normalization” of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Hypernormalisation is divided into nine chapters. The film opens with footage of New York City during the 1975 fiscal crisis. The event marked a “radical shift in power” Curtis argues, because “the financial institutions took power away from the politicians.” The committee set up to deal with the city’s finances — the majority of whom were bankers — implemented a severe program of austerity. “The old politicians believed that crises were solved through negotiations and deals,” Curtis states. “The bankers had a completely different view. They were just the representatives of something that couldn’t be negotiated with. The logic of the market. To them, there was no alternative to this system. It should run society.” Curtis then cuts to Damascus during the same year. Enraged by Henry Kissinger’s manipulation of leaders in the Middle East (a policy that the then Secretary of State referred to as “constructive ambiguity”), Hafez al-Assad — Syria’s President and the father of current President Bashar al-Assad — retreated from his belief that the region could be united. Following the United States’ involvement in the Lebanon War (1982), al-Assad allied himself with Ruhollah Khomeini. This, Curtis argues, marked the escalation of suicide bombing throughout the region.

Still from “Hypernormalisation” (2016)

Curtis then sets up multiple narrative threads — the development of cyberspace, the rise of the banks and computer networks, the use of perception management techniques, and the rapid fracturing of the Middle East — weaving in and out of each story whilst binding them together. He regularly returns to a few key figures, among them Hafez al-Assad, Ronald Reagan, Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.

The overarching narrative is both compelling and convincing. That said, some of Curtis’s chosen subjects are unabashedly idiosyncratic. One section of the film is dedicated to US counter-intelligence efforts to manipulate ufologists. Military officials allegedly forged classified memos regarding alien activity in order to divert public attention away from secret aerial weapons programs. The result, however, was that more Americans began to believe in UFOs as an alien phenomenon. Curtis cites the affair as an example of perception management. It also sowed an ever-growing distrust of the government. Of course, there are many other documented examples that Curtis could choose from. For instance, a segment on the Iraq war — namely the absence of WMD’s and the so-called “45- minute” claim — feels rushed by comparison. The problem is that Curtis can’t fit everything in, an expectation that is bolstered by some of his more creative sequences. Some sections of the film, particularly those that depart from the narrative, might feel like an indulgence to some viewers. One such sequence is comprised of footage from Hollywood disaster movies (all of which were produced before 9/11) cut to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” (1979). The result is eerie, disturbing, and utterly compelling. Curtis’s detractors typically zero in on his style, arguing that it’s incompatible with his role as a documentarian. But Curtis has always been unafraid of spectacle and humor. It’s what makes his films so engrossing. His visual style and flair are essential to the articulation of his thesis.

Still from “Hypernormalisation” (2016)

Hypernormalisation breathlessly weaves together many of the filmmaker’s chosen themes over the years. Long-time fans will also recognize the incorporation of subjects from Curtis’s shorts as well as his blog. It is, without question, Curtis’s most all-encompassing project to date. Clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes, the film constantly threatens to collapse under the weight of its narrative breadth. It just about manages to avoid this, in part because the film is less about one specific idea and more about tracing the mood of our time. In this regard, it conceptually resembles It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), Curtis’s audio-visual history of post-World War II America. Similarly, Hypernormalisation functions as a multi-faceted meditation on the present. Curtis’s critique of individualism has also become more pointed. Have our politicians failed us? Yes. The bankers, kleptocrats, and technologists? Of course. But it’s our apathy that allowed these forces to consolidate their power. If recent events have demonstrated anything, it’s that we need to unify and develop a new vocabulary of protest. It’s time for a new vision of the future.

Hypernormalisation was released on BBC iPlayer on October 16, 2016.

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