The world according to Adam Curtis

Nei suoi rivoluzionari documentari, con i quali ha vinto vari premi BAFTA, Adam Curtis stravolge le narrative convenzionali e offre una visione del mondo rivelatrice anche se a volte allarmante. Lo abbiamo intervistato per parlare dei suoi lavori pionieristici.

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Sarah Davison

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Adam Curtis is one of the world’s most renowned filmmakers. His acclaimed documentaries, narrated in a now-iconic voiceover style, interrogate the role of history’s most prominent figures, and question the absence of those whose true influence has been undermined. Curtis makes all his films available to watch for free online. 

THE CREATION OF TRUTH

Born in 1955 in Datford, Kent in the UK, Curtis is the son of cinematographer Martin Curtis. He studied human sciences at Oxford University, but became disillusioned with academia. After working for the BBC for some years, Curtis created the miniseries The Power of Nightmares (2004), which chartered the rise of the politics of fear. Inspired by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, he pieced together his arguments in a collage of fictional and factual film clips and music. The aim was to tell a story in a self-consciously constructed way that revealed a greater underlying truth. 

AN EMOTIONAL HISTORY

In subsequent films such as Bitter Lake (2014), Curtis links neoconservative governments in the US with militant Islamists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. In HyperNormalisation (2016) Curtis argued that modern life, while familiar and comforting, is a myth maintained by a corrupt system. In his most recent work, the six-part documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2021), he chronicled growing anxieties in the west, China and Russia, in what he called “an emotional history of the modern world.”

SEARCH FOR SINCERITY

Curtis believes it is important to continually reinvent the documentary genre to keep it relevant and exciting. All documentaries, however sincere they seem, offer a subjective view of the world, he says. Speak Up met with Curtis to talk more about his films. We began by asking him how his films took form.

Adam Curtis (English accent): I don’t have an overall script because I think that limits you. Mostly I start with a story that I think is interesting. For example, I found out from an old book that Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who lived in New York, had invented public relations as a profession, and, he said, he used his uncle’s ideas from psychoanalysis as public relations. And I thought, “That’s a fascinating story.” The whole Freud family is fascinating. It’s like a line that takes you through the 20th century and I can go off on little stories all over the place, but always coming back to the line. 


FEEL THE STORY

The four-part series The Century of the Self (2002) explored how Freud’s ideas were used by the powerful to control people. For this film and other, Curtis spent ages in the BBC archive selecting footage. The compilation and editing process is long and arduous, he says, and it is as much about capturing a mood as it is about demonstrating something literal. 

Adam Curtis: In factual films and television, everything is very literal. So if they say ‘computers’, you see a computer. Or if they’re using music and they’re doing banks they use Money by Pink Floyd. First, it’s boring, and secondly, it’s not imaginative. What I do is when I’m looking at footage in the BBC, some of it is very specific: “I need that shot.” But some of it I just think, “Oh, I like that shot.” I can’t explain why, but it’s just got a mood to it. It evokes what I’m trying to say. You want to bring people into your world. You want people to not only listen to your story but feel your story.

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ARTIFICIAL REALITY

The title of his film HyperNormalisation is borrowed from a Russian anthropologist called Alexei Yurchak. Yurchak used it to describe Soviet life in the late Cold War period, when everyone pretended that society was working because the alternative was too frightening to contemplate. Curtis suggests that the word can be applied globally today in that the once unacceptable has suddenly become normal. The film was released in 2016 and appears to have predicted the election of Trump as US president. We asked Curtis about that. 

Adam Curtis: I got lucky. Every now and then, just by accident or because you’ve taken so long to make the film, you get the time right. It was after Brexit and just before Trump, and I’d just decided to do a history, which takes you through to try and explain that. It landed at the right moment.

Secret dramas

While his work may appear to promote conspiracy theories, in fact, it does just the opposite: seeking the reason why they emerge in the first place. In last year’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis interconnects stories of individuals trying to transform the modern world, from Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing to Afeni Shakur, mother of the late rapper Tupac and a former Black Panther. His aim, says Curtis, is to make people question the shifting power dynamics that shape our world.

Adam Curtis: What I think is interesting to do as a journalist and as a filmmaker is to find areas of life that aren’t dramatic but are important, and dramatise them yourself. In our world, power works through science, or managers in offices, or bankers, or computers, none of which is dramatic. Those in charge see their task is to run the system, but because they have no other vision than that, those who actually have power outside politics are beginning to completely corrupt the system.

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