This piece was published in The Big Issue in March 2017.
Adam Curtis has been looking through the BBC archives, once again. Britain’s most intriguing documentary-maker spends much of his working life here, sifting through old, often unused footage from news reports and entertainment shows.
He splices it together to make something strange and new – big, ambitious, sometimes puzzling visual lectures that try to make sense of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.
Curtis has been gathering footage of Colonel Gaddafi, the late Libyan leader, a figure he finds great significance in, someone he has struggled to let go of.
“I almost think the Gaddafi story could be a musical, actually – a beautiful musical because in the end you feel a bit of sympathy with him,” he says.
“I find it astonishing – the creepiness and hypocrisy the West displayed toward Gaddafi, raging from politicians, to journalists, to radical leftists. They all picked him up, reinvented him, then dropped him, depending on what they required at the time. Gaddafi craved attention. So when people came along and said, ‘We want you to be a terrorist mastermind,’ he actually played along with that. And for a while when they said, ‘We don’t want that now,’ he played along too.”
Curtis is preparing material for a talk at this year’s BBC Arabic Festival on western perception of the Arab world. He is also hosting the opening ceremony of the week-long showcase, and is excited by the quality of the film-making now flourishing in the region.
“It’s a really good thing,” he says. “It’s people being allowed to share their own stories. It’s exactly what hasn’t been allowed to happen for the last 40 or 50 years because the sort of journalism that dominated was the anxieties of a western elite projected on to the Arab world and the Middle East more generally. It’s what we tend to do – we project on to the Middle East our own insecurities, and so we don’t really see what’s going on there.”
Having traced the West’s strange, distorted attitudes toward the Middle East in several of his best-known films, including, most recently, HyperNormalisation (still available on BBC iPlayer) – Curtis understands how skewed our vision of foreign threats has been since 9/11.
In The Power of Nightmares he detailed the invention of an all-powerful network in al-Qaeda, while in Bitter Lake, he argued that the US and UK misled themselves into labelling one side of every local tribal dispute part of a coherent force called “the Taliban.”
But Curtis thinks we have become tired trying to understand the region and the current conflict raging across Syria and Iraq – a shoulder-shrugging despondency he describes as “Oh Dearism”.
“I think people look at the Middle East and Isis and think what is happening there is just too weird and frightening for them, so they’ve given up and gone back to Russia as a reinvented enemy,” he explains.
“It’s a very strange alliance. The US intelligence agencies and the neoconservatives are all saying, Russia is really dangerous – there’s a madman, Putin, who is about to bring down the West. And the liberals are agreeing with them because they are now desperate to find a reason Donald Trump won the election. So they have found another bogeyman. We have this need to invent simplified others.
“It’s not to say Putin is a nice man and I’m not saying Russia didn’t try to hack Democrat computers,” he adds. “But I don’t think it was the reason Trump won.”
Curtis touched on Vladimir Putin’s key strategist Vladislav Surkov in Hypernormalization. The filmmaker suggested a kind of equivalence between Russia’s political circus – in which many entertaining but pointless arguments are manufactured for TV – and Trump’s refusal to take truth seriously.
“I don’t think there is a Surkov figure in America, but I do think Trump is playing a similar sort of game,” he explains. “You know a lot of what he says is completely false, but you’ve never quite sure if what he says will actually happen, or what is really going on. So if you’re a liberal journalist, Trump has got you trapped in state of doubt and confusion.”
Curtis admits he struggles to work out what President Trump’s policy towards Russia, the Middle East – or anywhere else – will be.
“No one really knows,” he says. “He is a brilliant comic performer who continually distracts you by saying outrageous things. Taking what he says at face value would get you caught in his trap.
“He says something outrageous, you get cross, you type your anger into Twitter and you just get lost in his hysteria. I wonder if Trump is actually turning politics into a pantomime, where we all get outraged by what he says while behind him traditional power just goes on much as it always has. Because the traditional right-wing figures in the US are still in positions of power.”
Trump, of course, has popularised the idea of “fake news” – disingenuously dismissing reports, journalists and entire media organisations as fraudulent. Now infuriatingly commonplace, the term is being thrown around by political leaders, parties and movements to discredit any stories not to their liking.
Those attempting to uphold a standard of objective, fact-based news are on the defensive. Wading through the online world in search of information today has become a demanding exercise in processing misleading clickbait, convoluted Twitter spats, satire, old-fashioned sensationalism and outright bullshit.
Are we all feeling overwhelmed by the angry subjectivity of it all? Are we in danger of becoming exhausted by the volume of conflicting information?
“I don’t buy that,” says Curtis. “That’s the ‘oh dear, it’s awful’ thing. Yes, there is a great volume of information, torrents of stuff, but the type of stories that emerge is actually quite small and narrow. There is more volume but less variety.
“I’ve actually become fed up with hearing about Donald Trump and fake news, for instance. We’ve reached peak Trump. It’s a strange delirium – waves and waves of the same story. Everyone does the same story, like being in a noisy club. I think we neglect other important things going on. So to liberals I say, ‘Calm down, pull back and focus – focus on trying to understand what is going on out there.’”
Photo: Steve Rhodes, licensed under Creative Commons.