“Documentary Reporting Has Become So Rigid”: Adam Curtis on Storytelling Today

The journalist and documentary filmmaker discusses his recent film HyperNormalisation and past projects, as well as his plans to make a documentary on the West’s relationship with Russia.

Stills from <em>HyperNormalisation</em> (all images courtesy Adam Curtis)
Stills from HyperNormalisation (all images courtesy Adam Curtis)

Around the turn of the 21st century, civilization was in distress. The Middle East was embroiled in war. Far-right movements were growing or even taking power in the West, culminating in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States. The consequences of events throughout the 20th century were piling on top of one another. The institutions seemed to be failing us. The people found that the old sources of information were lacking. Hungry for answers, they began turning to alternative sources. Some found that the work of a certain man, a British filmmaker, made sense to them. His documentaries stood out for their unusual editing and use of music, an approach to history that defied convention, and his distinct manner of narration — you may even be reading this now in his voice. That man’s name was Adam Curtis.

Curtis has been an established, respected journalist in his home country for decades, but didn’t garner much attention in America until his films began circulating online in the 2000s and ‘10s. Now his popularity has exploded, with uploads of his newest film, HyperNormalisation, cumulatively getting millions of views. Many journalists have tried to “explain” the Trump phenomenon, but few have done so by connecting it to a broader picture involving the failings of neoliberalism and a drastic shift in the discourse of democracy.

Now, Curtis is coming to America to present “Into the Zone,” a weekend-long film series at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles. The program includes Starship Troopers and Blow Out, and other films that express themes commonly found in his work. Hyperallergic was able to speak on the phone with Curtis about HyperNormalisation and his other films, as well as the slipshod reporting around Syria and Russia.

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Dan Schindel: HyperNormalisation has raised your profile here in America. Until now, a few of your series have gotten DVD releases, but never any theatrical run or airing. Your work has been spread around in the US mainly via the internet, mostly with uploads that aren’t strictly legal. How do you feel about that?

Journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis
Journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis: I think it’s one of the realities of the modern world. I am neutral about it. What I’ve noticed right from about the year 2000, 2001, is that you put out a film live on television, and within about five or six minutes, it tends to appear on YouTube. The BBC squeal about it and then try and get it taken down, then it turns up again. I just accept it.

I like the idea that you make a film, it goes out, then it turns up on the internet in various forms and people go and find it. I’m happy with that. The BBC would hate me for saying this, but I don’t mind. It’s partly because also I work for the BBC and it’s a public broadcasting organization. I feel that the public should be allowed to see it in as many ways as they like. The BBC don’t like that, but it’s inevitable these days.

DN: They’re already sort of cutting out the middle man there. Your last two films, HyperNormalisation and Bitter Lake, premiered directly on BBC iPlayer.

AC: The interesting thing about online is that you can do things that are more complex and involving and less patronizing to the audience than traditional documentaries, which tend to simplify so much because they’re panicking that people will only watch them once live. They tend to just tell you what you already know. I think you can do some more complicated things, and that’s what I’ve been trying.

DS: I’ve seen people share political documentaries on video sites like they’re tracts, passing them around on social media.

AC: I’ve noticed with HyperNormalisation, in the United States, it’s got passed around like an underground thing. I think that’s not a bad way to publish a thing. I’m not trying to make a traditional documentary. I’m trying to make a thing that gets why you feel today like you do — uncertain, untrusting of those who tell you what is what. To make it in a way that emotionally explains that as much as it explains it intellectually.

DS: Both Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation are much longer than films you made before. Before, you would have to cut them into multiple parts for airing, but now you’re free to expand.

AC: It has disadvantages too, in that you’re off live TV. But cumulatively, I’ve had very big audiences for both films, far more than I would for a live television showing. One of the reasons I like online is that I have this image that a lot of the people will watch it on their laptops with headphones. If you do that, then you can make the music and the noise and everything you do visually more involving.

DS: How so?

AC: What I’ve discovered … it’s a bit like going up a ladder on a computer game. For a long time, I knew about the BBC archive, and I could explore it and find hidden stuff. Then I met a cameraman who works for the news department in the BBC who was spending his spare time going around our bureaus in foreign countries — he started with Afghanistan. He was literally going to the cupboards in the back of the offices, taking out the original rush tapes, digitizing them, and bringing them back home. No one wanted them, so he gave them to me. He gave me Afghanistan. You know, when you send out a news crew, you’ll use 10 seconds of what they get. There’s usually about two hours’ worth of material, because the camera people film all sorts of things. As you look through it, it was just amazing.

There was one shot in the Afghanistan rushes which was of an assassination attempt on the president, Hamid Karzai. I timed it, the news used 10 seconds of it. I used about four minutes of it in Bitter Lake, but the actual shot lasted about 15 minutes, and it’s just extraordinary. The camera is walking along next to a car, and then there’s shooting. You can’t see really what’s happening. The camera goes and hides as complete chaos breaks out, but then the cameraman comes up very bravely and just films everything — the aftermath, the car speeding off. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to be there. I thought, “I’m just going to run it.”

I’ve noticed that people really like stuff like that, because news reporting and documentary reporting has become so rigid, so formalized in the way it edits shots that you don’t even look at that 10 seconds that they use anyway. You think, “Oh yeah, okay. That’s the way they’re doing it.” It’s like you don’t look at the Mona Lisa any longer. You just say, “Oh, that’s the Mona Lisa.” What audiences really like is just getting a sense of letting something run. I want to do more of it. In Bitter Lake, I was experimenting with just letting things run so people get a sense of what it was like. You can make your point visually and emotionally at the same time as you are saying it intellectually.

What I was saying in that film is that when we were going to Afghanistan, we thought it was a simple country full of goodies and baddies. Actually, it was a world we didn’t understand. I wanted to get a sense of drifting through this world, almost like a drug experience that comes in and out of focus. Using the rushes allowed me to do that. It made my point in a much more powerful way than me just saying it or interviewees saying it. If you notice, I had practically no interviewees in that film; I’ve just let the footage tell the story. I’m just lucky I got these rushes.

DS: How do you pick the music you use?

AC: The BBC has a blanket agreement for music rights, so I’m at a very advantaged position of being allowed to use a lot of music that I wouldn’t if I was making something by myself. That is the joy of working for a large and bureaucratic corporation. I have a contrary attitude to music. I like things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I tend to shy away from the big pieces of music that you would not normally be allowed to use. I just go for what I feel is right.

The thing I find about a lot of factual films these days — it’s as true in America as it is in Britain — is that the use of music tends to be either very clichéd or very boring. It’s as if the editor or the director doesn’t get out enough. They choose music which is completely predictable — if they’re making a film about bankers, they’ll put Pink Floyd’s “Money” over it. Your heart sinks. Whereas I like the idea that you choose music that feels not appropriate literally, but emotionally to what you’re trying to say.

Part of the function of journalism if you’re using music and images is to create an emotional platform from which you can draw people into the argument that you’re trying to put forward. It’s not a manipulation. It’s just: “Let me tell you a story.” As you tell a story, you draw people in. Music is so important in that.

DS: You collate a lot of history and culture into each of your films, often without any annotation explaining the references or documents to the viewer. How do you choose what to incorporate and how to present it?

AS: The thing that really pisses me off about a lot of television-making is that it deeply patronizes the audience. It treats them like they’re making an educational video for a class of 13-year-olds — which is not to denigrate 13-year-olds. I decide that if I know something, then the audience will probably know it. If they don’t, they can pause the film and look it up on Google. I have this attitude, instead of patronizing the audience, you say in a nice way: “Come on, come on, catch up.” You make them part of your excitement at the story you’re telling. You treat them as grownups. I try not to over-densify it where it’s unnecessary. Maybe I get it wrong sometimes, but that’s what I try to do.

What I’m doing is like writing an essay. I’m saying, “Look, we all know at this present moment that we feel uncertain. We don’t trust what we’re told. We don’t trust those in power over us. We don’t trust that they actually know what’s going on. We know that they know that we know. We’re caught in this loop of distrust.” I wanted to explain how that happened. To do that, I go back and I find a number of stories. I put them together, and I say, “I think this means that. This is how I think it happened.” I’m not saying this is a comprehensive history. I’m just saying that these are elements which go back to some of the main roots of why you feel as you do. It’s almost like I’m trying to make you go up in a helicopter and look at your own time a bit more.

Most journalists, most political people, and most think tank people just react like, “Oh my god, there’s another event happened. Oh my god, it’s this.” No one ever tries to put it in context, explain it. That’s what I was trying to do. To do that, you choose stories that you think dramatically illustrate what you’re trying to argue. For example, I think that with Syria and what is happening in Syria now, the roots of that give you a great insight into what has happened to our trust in politicians. So I decided to tell that story [with HyperNormalisation]. Also because no one has done a proper history of Syria.

DS: Do you usually find that a film comes from wanting to explain some feeling or aspect of life, or from examining a specific event and then working backwards to the root of it?

AC: It comes from finding a really good story. For example, I made a series called The Century of the Self, which was all about the rise of the idea of the individual self and how it’s intimately related to the rise of consumer capitalism over the last 100 years. That’s not how it started. It started when I simply found out that Sigmund Freud’s nephew, a man called Edward Bernays who lived in America in the 1920s, started public relations as a profession — using, he claimed, his uncle’s theories of the unconscious. I thought, “That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. If I didn’t know that, probably lots of people didn’t know it. I want to tell that story.” After that, as I discovered more and more, I built the series.

I’m a simple creature — all journalists are. We like stories. If we find a good story, we use that thing because journalists know that people like stories too. When you have those documentaries where a man or a woman turns up on the screen and starts telling you great generalities, I just go ahead and turn off.

DS: You spoke about wanting to explain Syria with HyperNormalisation. Was there a specific story having to do with Syria that sparked that?

AC: I realized that the father of the present president, President Assad Sr., back in 1975 was furious with Henry Kissinger for not making a comprehensive settlement between Israel and Palestine. A lot of people who’ve studied this argue that the failure to achieve a comprehensive settlement at that point in the 1970s, when the Americans could have done so, has led to a lot of the problems you now face in the Middle East. It’s not the only reason, but it’s one of the most powerful reasons. I’m not arguing pro- or anti- Palestine or Israel. As Assad Sr. said to Kissinger at the time in fury, “You are going to release demons under the surface of the Middle East.” You could argue that is what has happened.

I wanted to try and explain why the horror in Syria is happening. I know it’s very difficult to report from there, but there is a tendency to assume that it is a seriously weird place where seriously weird people are doing seriously weird and horrible things to each other. It’s not like that. It’s a complex society. It’s as complicated as yours or mine is.

I just was trying to explain the roots of this, and the role that we in the West have played in the Middle East. I didn’t put this in HyperNormalisation because it goes too far back, but one of the earliest coups the American government did through the CIA was in Syria in 1949, when they tried to “bring democracy” to the country. We have a long history there. So much of the reporting at the moment is ahistorical. It’s, “Oh my god, it’s another horrific thing that’s happened.” The other idea lurking under it is that it’s full of evil people doing evil things to victims — a goodies-and-baddies mentality, which I think is a very, very dangerous thing for journalism. It’s the sort of thing that led us to invade Iraq. We just think that there are evil people subjugating innocent victims. It ain’t like that.

I’m not saying that there aren’t some evil people there. But some people are neither good nor bad. There are complex struggles for control going on there. That’s the other thing I really think about the misreporting of the Middle East by the West: It’s as if no one discusses power. Ever since its modern borders were set in 1920, Iraq has been a society driven by complex struggles for power. It’s like Game of Thrones, but even more complicated. The same is true of Syria. It’s as if we don’t talk about power any longer. Because we’re encouraged to think of ourselves as totally independent individuals, the language of power has gone into disuse. But there are complicated struggles going on, and through looking at that, you can better understand things.

DS: You speak about not wanting to go back too far in HyperNormalisation. Where do you decide to draw that line when you want to go back to contextualize current events?

AC: You can argue that the roots of anything go back a millennium, but you have to start somewhere. The basic story I was telling in HyperNormalisation is that, as the postwar liberal idea that you could create a predictable world began to collapse, out of that came all sorts of forces which have now led partially to the uncertainty we feel today. The economic crisis of the mid-1970s was the reason I decided to start in 1975.

In your country, I start in New York, which is where power began to shift from politicians toward the world of finance. In Syria, that’s when the failure to solve the Israel-Palestine problem began to unleash all sorts of forces within the Arab world who wanted to challenge it. Remember that when Osama bin Laden held his first press conference in 1997 to announce his alliance against the West, the thing he went on and on about was Israel and Palestine. It’s so deep in the Arab mind, and we just don’t realize that here. 1975 is when a shift in power happened in the Middle East at the same time as the shift in power away from politics toward finance began in the West. It’s arbitrary, but I chose that moment because those two things are at the root of a lot of other things we have today. It’s a dramatic moment.

DS: What sort of film do you think you might make next?

AC: I’ve just now been given everything the BBC ever shot in Russia for the last 60 years, which is extraordinary. I’m fascinated. It would be more about our complicated relationship with Russia. I’ve got this theory that we continually project onto Russia — and not just with the Cold War, but after it and throughout history. We create a simplified, fake version of Russia and ignore what’s really going on there. Vladimir Putin is not a nice man, but he is part of a complicated struggle.

I was watching a film about the John Birch Society in the 1960s, at the time of the Barry Goldwater campaign. You see they are obsessed with Russia. The journalist turns back to the camera and says, “This is really strange. It’s almost like these people, who are anxious about everything, about the decline of the middle class, the fact that they have no hope in the future, they’ve projected it onto the other.” He’s talking in 1964 about right-wing, middle-class people in the suburbs of Southern California

Now we’re doing it again, but this time it’s the liberal middle class doing it. Underneath, there’s something even more complicated. It’s like we continually reinvent Russia. There’s this strange alliance between the liberals and the CIA, who are convinced that Russia is behind Donald Trump. It’s almost like it’s a desperate attempt to avoid having to face that possibly it was their fault they lost the election.

Beyond that, I just think that it’s about time to do something comprehensive about Russia. This footage I’ve got, some of it is so beautiful and so amazing. I don’t know whether people would be interested. Right now, liberals are so anti-Russia that I think you can’t do anything. The mood is not right yet.

DS: I think that means it’s the perfect time for a corrective. That rhetoric just gets worse and more hysterical. I heard the great comparison that the way liberals talk about how Russians supposedly connected to Donald Trump are dying is identical to the conservatives’ “Clinton Body Count.” It would be great for someone with a platform to get people to question how we’re thinking about this.

AC: Funnily enough, I sort of want to do that. There is a dark demon within me wanting to say this, or to produce something that says: “Look, look at what you’re doing. You’re trying to avoid the fact that whether Russia actually hacked into the Democratic Party computers or not, it didn’t truly affect the outcome of the election, because what they produced was so boring. The election was lost because you had a bad candidate and a load of other people were presented with a big button that said ‘Fuck off’ and pressed it. That’s the reason. You’re flailing around trying to blame it on Russia.”

Beyond that, it is interesting, the alliances that are forming. For 40 years, the liberal middle class hated the CIA, and they had good reason to. The CIA’s done some really bad things. But suddenly the CIA are noble heroes. It’s very weird. That’s why any film I make about this shouldn’t just be about Russia. It should be about the relationship between the West and Russia, as it offers dramatic insights into the growing lack of confidence in the liberal mindset. I think the route that mindset is going down is potentially quite dangerous. I’d like to play with that.

The trouble is if you do that, they’ll turn around and say, “Well, you’re just like Donald Trump.” Do you see the problem? If someone comes along and says, “Hang on, let’s look at the joint intelligence report about the supposed Russian hacking. Actually, there isn’t very much hard evidence in it,” you are immediately accused of almost being an ally of Trump. That’s not very good, is it? It means there’s something very peculiar going on. I haven’t really got my head around it, but I would like to do something about it.

DS: Have you seen the Adam Curtis Bingo Card?

AC: Yeah. It’s not as good as The Loving Trap. That’s much better parody. It gets my voice. It pins me down beautifully.

Into the Zone: A Weekend with Adam Curtis” takes place March 17–19 at Cinefamily (611 North Fairfax Avenue, Melrose, Los Angeles).

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