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Adam Curtis on power in a post-truth world

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We meet the mind behind HyperNormalisation to talk about the state of civilization’s confusion, why his stories are emotional and the beauty of Burial

“We live in a strange time.” These are the first words uttered by the BBC’s cult documentary maker Adam Curtis in his new film HyperNormalisation. It’s true, isn’t it? We do.

A reality TV star is running for president in America. Britain offered the public a vote to leave the European Union without an idea of what to do if they took it. “If people are given a big button with FUCK OFF on it they’ll press it,” says Curtis. People are dying trying to cross the Mediterranean, fleeing burning cities and ultra-violent jihadi groups. An irony boy from Twitter called @PissPigGrandDad is in Iraq fighting Isis. American police continue to shoot unarmed black people in America. Property developers are eating up London and filling it with architecturally banal, IKEA-ish obelisks. The earth‘s biodiversity is being eradicated at a pace not seen in 65 million years. Billionaire technocrat Elon Musk suggests we’re living in a computer simulation – stranger things have happened, and are happening.

Love or hate them (and people do both), Curtis’ films are unique. Unprecedented access to the BBC’s archives enables him to weave together his sleepy, cinematic tapestries using footage captured by some of the world’s finest documentarians, often in far-flung war zones, something he describes as “sitting on the shoulders of giants”. His soundtracks – entirely curated and mixed by him – have their own “Curtis-ian” atmosphere, calling on the sounds of Burial, Suicide and Cliff Martinez, along with layers of found sound he records in London on his phone, to lend his films an unmistakable, tranquil aura. His work questions power systems, politics and the impotence of citizens, lost within those impenetrable structures. Weirdly, in an age of supposedly declining attention spans, our generation loves him.

In person, he’s amusingly self-deprecating about his work but also protective of it, excitedly telling me that his greatest achievement is “getting pretentious, high-end bollocks on the front page of iPlayer”, but defiantly maintaining that “the facts are true, the stories are true, the argument is my argument and the emotion is true. The emotion you get is my authentic emotion about the story I’m telling.” He is noticeably pleased when a BBC commissioner rings him to tell him the film is good, twelve hours after it’s debuted on iPlayer.

HyperNormalisation is a film about helplessness and detachment, a state that Curtis ascertains has reached a level of plateaued permanence – a sense that things are fucked, but we don’t care, or if we do, we don’t know how to stop it. It’s an interesting claim – we all know what it’s like to feel individually helpless or apathetic at points in our lives, but when you apply the concept to an entire civilization it becomes far scarier, an entire earth fumbling around in the darkness but….quite happy? It begins in 1975 in two cities, New York and Damascus, and weaves its way through to present day, meeting Colonel Gaddafi as a tragic, proto-reality TV villain and looking at Hollywood’s mid-90s fixation with the apocalypse, along the way.

“There’s a whole generation that has retreated from an active engagement with power, who want to change the world,” he says. “You can feel it, there’s a great restlessness. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among white working class people, there’s a great deal of fear and dissatisfaction amongst all sorts of ethnic groups for different reasons. There is a great feeling of restlessness and hunger for change amongst white middle class and also black middle class, it’s all over the place but no-one has got any vision of what to do. I think it is because people have retreated – possibly into culture – but also into a never never land where everything has been emotionalized, rather than confronting issues of power.”

“What I’m trying to do in HyperNormalisation is bring the power that is all around us into focus and say ‘you’ve got to deal with this’” – Adam Curtis

Curtis is suspicious of “culture”, or certainly where it’s at now, describing it as “eating itself” and “self-referential”, critical of the European Union despite voting remain, an institution he describes as “an economic system in Europe which started out with great moral vision, which then somewhere in the early 90’s was captured by right wing economists”. Crucially, he’s critical of us, critical of the detachment that being “cool” engenders. “The extraordinary thing about the liberal at the moment, is that it’s almost as if power doesn’t exist in their brains,” he says. “Power is everywhere, it shapes our world and they refuse to confront it. The interesting thing about culture is that it often expresses the one thing we haven’t got. Game Of Thrones is all about power. What I’m trying to do in HyperNormalisation is bring the power that is all around us into focus and say ‘you’ve got to deal with this’.”

“Journalism is about ruthlessly taking facts and constructing a story. I would say I’m just a bit more honest about it and a bit more emotional. I’m pulling your heartstrings” – Adam Curtis

Ever questioning, ever skeptical, his opinions are boldly his own. Curtis is often criticized for presenting his own view of the world, a strange accusation to be leveled at somebody who controls every detail of his films – the edit, the narration and the soundtrack. What do they expect?

“I get these criticisms like: ‘Is he manipulating us?’”, he says, exasperated. “Well, yes. The only thing I would say in my defence is that actually, I'm showing you that I'm doing it. I think I make it completely obvious what I'm up to. A lot of my colleagues do exactly the same but pretend that they don't. I push it to the maximum. I say what I think and provoke you to say what you think but it's obvious from my construction. What else is the point? The world can be described quite simply if you actually pull back and are courageous enough. Of course it’s emotional. I would argue that at the centre of journalism is emotion. Telling stories is totally emotional and I'm telling you a story. In journalism, if you just had facts it would be so boring. Journalism is about ruthlessly taking facts and constructing a story. I would say I'm just a bit more honest about it and a bit more emotional. I'm pulling your heartstrings. That bit where I used 'Dream Baby Dream' by Suicide is powerful, right?”

Curtis’ films have a definitive sound. Arguably music is the engine room driving his stories forward and, ironically, the mesmerising combination of looking at a Afghan girl in 1953, soundtracked by UK post-garage, can feel a little post-truth, or hyperreal, exactly the confusing framework that Curtis says we’re trapped in.

“Instinctively I create an emotional platform which carries what I'm talking about,” he says. “Half of journalism is the mood you create. Everyone talks in terms of culture these days so why don't I take my knowledge of culture and what I like and use it as a way of creating my argument? I can't understand people who make films for television and let an editor choose the music.”

2015’s Bitter Lake heavily featured the work of elusive British composer Burial, most notably the track “Come Down To Us”, taken from his album Rival Dealer, along with “In McDonalds” and “Dog Shelter” from his era-defining 2007 record Untrue. Curtis says he had to pull back from using Burial on HyperNormalisation, but eulogises about his worth as an artist (“his song titles are absolutely brilliant”) and lights up discussing “Come Down To Us”.

“That song is a work of genius because it really sums up our time,” he says. “That song is saying, it's really frightening to jump of the edge into the darkness. Both when you fall in love with someone, and when you want to change the world. And it depends whether you can live with the fear or whether you really want the thrill of it. Or whether you retreat into the world you're happy with. And I think that's why it's a work of genius. He's got it, it's the mood of our time that we're waiting for. He's way ahead of our time, an epic emotional artist.” Like Burial, Curtis is keen to maintain a degree of anonymity and declined to have his picture taken for this article. Like Burial, his films convey a sense of longing, of helplessness, and irrespective of both artists’ work dealing in dreamlike doom, themes of love and hope are all over Curtis’ films, while listening to Untrue on a night bus can feel euphoric.

Despite HyperNormalisation having only just been released, he already has an idea of the films he’s thinking about making next – one about housing in London, another a giant history of Russia from 1989 to present day – and talks excitedly about how he thinks he’s going to go about it, while also being adamant that he “needs a break”, having been editing HyperNormalisation up until a few days before it was released. Whatever he decides to release next, he’ll have a rapt, loyal audience intrigued by his idiosyncratic method of storytelling.

It’s fascinating to see how popular Curtis’ work is among our generation (last year’s Bitter Lake was received equally as well), while generally disapproved of by older, right-leaning conservatives. But for all his suspicion of “the rise of cool” and the detachment he says that state-of-mind brings with it; the idea that “you know it should be changed, but you’re not in a group that’s going to change it, you have an ironic cool distance, because you see the reality”, it’s entirely plausible that that’s who his audience is. As the interview goes on it strikes me that there’s one thing that Curtis is blissfully unaware of – that he and the films that he makes…are cool. Three-hour films made by a BBC journalist using only archive footage have become cool? That’s hyperreal, man.

Watch HyperNormalisation on BBC iPlayer here.