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Past Article

"A Growing Public Distrust": Adam Curtis
By David D'Arcy
May 12, 2005 - 5:15 AM PDT

"Their legacy is going to be the opposite of what they intended."

D'Arcy: To what extent has The Power of Nightmares been overtaken by events, a risk that many documentaries face? To what extent have events since the completion of the film confirmed or cast doubt on your conclusions?

Curtis: We were surprised when we put the films out. The BBC was concerned that we would have a reaction against us. We were concerned that we would be seen as trivializing the war on terror, questioning it too much. In fact, the reaction was like pushing at an open door. We discovered that most people, in the back of their minds, weren't sure that what they'd been told about the war on terror really added up. There was a great appreciation for something that went back into history and tried to explain it. Now, of course, events overtake you, but ultimately the events that occurred in the war on terror have confirmed what we were saying in the series.

Ultimately, the threats we face appear to be that, not of an organized group, but [of] an idea that pops up all over the place in different forms. There was a trial that just finished in our country, the "ricin trial," which was going to be evidence of an organized network, turned out actually to be just what my BBC series was saying, that the threat we face is from isolated individuals  or groups inspired by a corrupt version of Islamist theory. The films will date, as all films do, but the power of these films is that they go back into the history of the past.

Events change quickly, and that often puts documentaries in a very difficult position. But the evidence confirms what we showed - that we face a fragmented force of individuals inspired by an idea, and not organized centrally by Bin Laden in a cave. In the films, I self-consciously steered away from the war in Iraq, partly because it was moving so fast that it was difficult to assess it, but also partly because I was noticing in the reporting on Iraq that not only the Right but the Left can use fear and lack of evidence to their own purposes. For example, here was a great move to say that what the British and American governments [were doing] by invading Iraq would actually raise up the hydra of a terrorist threat that would have kept sleeping if they hadn't done it. There's no evidence for this. There's no evidence because there's so little reporting of what's actually going on in Iraq, who these insurgents are.

Both the Left and the Right keep on saying that it's Al Qaeda reforming. But actually, if you look at the reports from the US commanders on the ground, they say quite clearly that there is very little evidence of what are called foreign fighters. These are ultimately home-based insurgents - some of them may be nationalists, some of them may be Baathists - but basically, no one knows. And therefore, I steered clear of that. We know nothing about Iraq, and everyone projects onto Iraq, from Left to Right, the fantasy of fear that they want to create for their own purposes. The Left is just as bad in using fear as the Right is.

D'Arcy: Why is this happening now?

Curtis: What we're seeing here is fear rising up in a vacuum, because both Left and Right have absolutely no idea of what's happening in Iraq, or in the Muslim world, so they project onto this blank map their own fantasies which justify their own policies. The Left want to see it as the neoconservatives actually creating the very kind of thing that they're trying to stop, amplifying the very kind of thing they're trying to stop, which is terrorism. The Right want to see it as "this is the final showdown with these terrorists." The only reality from the fragments that we do have, which actually comes from the US Army itself, not the journalists there, is that the commanders on the ground tell us that the insurgency is home-based; there is very little evidence of foreign fighters and certainly no evidence that foreign fighters are leading the insurgency.

The Power of Nightmares

D'Arcy: Is this really a film about competing views of the world, about credibility, and about the public's willingness to believe?

Curtis: What I found fascinating when I looked at the whole history of the neoconservatives and the picture they have painted from the early days of the 1970s in the Soviet Union right through to the present day is that, really, what they open up is a philosophical can of worms. They open up the idea of, "How do you really describe reality?" The whole idea of the Cold War was that there was a simple reality out there, and it was noble. What the neoconservatives came out in the 1970s and said is, "Look, we have a complacent bureaucracy called the CIA, which has a picture of the Soviet Union which is wrong. They have taken fragments of evidence, because that's all that intelligence operations work with, and they have configured it into a story of their making that reflects their complacency about the world. We have taken the same fragments of evidence and reconfigured them to make a much more alarmist picture of a hidden force just waiting to kill us, and therefore we have to rearm - both to defeat it and to give a new purpose to a moralistically bankrupt society."

That's reminiscent of what we've lived with in Iraq and other areas, like North Korea. But the problem with this is that what they're really saying is that there is no real reality. You can take any fragments of evidence and stitch them together to fit the story you want. And the real problem that's going to emerge in this, for politicians and journalists, I think, is that, when it becomes obvious that a lot of this is a constructed fantasy, based often on idealism and not necessarily on conspiracy, there will be a growing public distrust about the very nature of how reality is described to them.

I know that sounds rather fancy, but I think the neoconservatives have taken us into a philosophical quagmire, which is, "How do you describe reality, how do you make sense of the world? How do you construct it?" And they're beginning to show up journalists for doing the same thing.

D'Arcy: Give me an example.

Curtis: All the questions about John Bolton [the current nominee for US Ambassador to the United Nations] - did he over-describe something, did he overemphasize something in talking about weapons of mass destruction in Syria or biological weapons in Cuba? - are not necessarily evidence of a bad man or a man trying to deceive us. It's actually the chickens coming home to roost. How do we deal with the world if all we have are fragments or bits? Who tells us what's right or what's wrong? If we now live in this world in which all certainties are gone, who do we trust to put the bits together and make a picture of the world that we can really believe in?

The neoconservatives' real gift to us is that they are unpacking the threads of certainty that held together society during the years of the Cold War and leaving us bereft of a sense of purpose, the very opposite of what they wanted to do. They came to power to rekindle a sense of unification and purpose throughout the world. Ultimately, what they are doing is picking apart the glue that holds certainty together, leaving us in a world where we don't know who to trust. When we begin to discover that the picture of Al Qaeda that journalists and politicians have portrayed for us is not a unified terror network, there will be a growing public distrust about journalism, about political storytelling. And I think ultimately their legacy is going to be the opposite of what they intended.

D'Arcy: You make officials look silly when they're shown not to be telling the truth, and you make journalists who believe those officials look even sillier. Your use of humor in The Power of Nightmares has been questioned, along the lines that it's inappropriate for documentary reporting.

Curtis: In a world in which journalists use fear consistently to describe a fantasy world of the threat we face, and mis-describe the real threat we face, then it is perfectly justified to use humor as a way of trying to expose that. Because not only are we trying to expose the fact that we have a simplistic version of the threat we face being reported to us, but ultimately, one is trying to draw the poison of fear. We do face a serious terrorist threat in America and Britain, but it is not like the picture which has been portrayed, and one would use any device to try and make sure that people get that idea. We do face a threat, but it isn't what you are being told.

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"How do you describe reality?"
"Their legacy is going to be the opposite of what they intended."

back to past articles


David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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