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Past Article

Adam Curtis: "I'm a modern journalist."
By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
May 30, 2005 - 7:17 AM PDT

"I don't think I make documentaries."

Any avid reader of Greencine's various online presences will be aware that we have been promoting the work of BBC film essayist Adam Curtis with gusto. Only last week, David D'Arcy questioned Curtis on the politics behind his most recent series, The Power of Nightmares, which just screened at Cannes.

Before beginning his stint at the BBC, Curtis taught politics at Oxford, moving over to television when he became overwhelmingly bored. Since his move he has produced many successful non-fiction series for several different departments there. Pandora's Box looks at the intimate relationship between science and politics over the last fifty years. The Mayfair Set follows four eccentric leaders of the free market who came to dominate British and world politics in the 60s and 70s and who also happened to frequent the same private casino in Mayfair. The Century of the Self takes as its starting point the establishment of the first PR company by Sigmund Freud's nephew and follows the mutations of large scale psychological manipulation to the present day as manifest in the all-powerful political focus groups of the 90s. The Power of Nightmares compares the parallel story lines and beliefs of the neoconservative and Islamist fundamentalist movements, culminating in their mutually beneficial use of fear to subjugate the masses.

One should not, however, reduce Curtis's work to single line synopses. One of his great skills is in selecting topics with a long history and using the episodic structure of television to slowly, captivatingly, tell the story of both a group of people and an idea. His essays have plots and characters. He has been given the uncomfortable (for him) moniker of "auteur" because he narrates his own films with sardonic wit and demonstrates his theories by making unusual and surprising choices when it comes to interviewees and stock footage.

Sadly, Curtis's documentaries have not yet been shown on American television. In fact, outside of San Francisco, practically the only way to have seen them in the US at all is through online bootlegs. That The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares have been screened in San Francisco is thanks almost entirely to Tom Luddy, a long time Bay Area film figure and cofounder of the Telluride Film Festival. This coming week, Green Screen, the UN Environmental Day Film Festival, programmed by Luddy, will be screening two relevant segments of Pandora's Box: Goodbye Mrs. Ant and The Brink of Eternity. Curtis was recently in San Francisco to receive the San Francisco International Film Festival's Persistence of Vision Award. He joined Tom Luddy, Jonathan Marlow and myself for a discussion of the problems he's having getting his films shown here. Inevitably, we wandered into deeper territory.

Hannah Eaves: Do you think that coming out of a country with a television service like the BBC, being used to informational programming in a long format, helped you in your current work?

Adam Curtis: Yes. I grew up in the late 80s watching all that current affairs and news stuff and thinking it was so boring. I mean, really boring. Yet at the same time, I was convinced that power in my society, the power in our societies, moves not just through politics, it goes through science, it goes through public relations, it goes through psychology, it goes through everything and that we should be telling stories about this. And no one was. So, yes, I came out of that tradition. But I realized that you could tell stories which are basically political but are also about areas that are a part of people's lives, which they don't look at that way - rather than doing long, dull interviews with politicians. I mean, I hardly interview politicians because they're boring. And you know what they're going to say. They're not unpredictable.

Eaves: Do you come up with your thesis first, before you find the stories?

Curtis: No. I find the stories. I mean, you could argue that I started this one because I was interested in conservative theories about society, which is really what this is about, but you'd never know that. Ultimately, I found this story about this guy Sayyid Qutb and I just thought it was a great story. If I like it, I assume that everyone else will be fascinated. Because I knew nothing about him. I mean, don't you find it astonishing that neither television here, nor in my country, has done a proper history of Islamism? The movement that actually led to the planes being flown into the buildings on September the 11th. I mean, I've done sort of a quirky essay that uses that, but no one's done a proper six-part series. It's just astonishing. I still don't understand. Surely your job as a television maker, even at boring old PBS, is to inform people.

Jonathan Marlow: You use an exceptional amount of "found footage" in your films. By Pandora's Box, that style is pretty well established. How did you decide to approach your footage in this way? Early on, from a journalistic standpoint, were you always intending to discuss issues with your own narration and with images that occasionally work in conflict?

Curtis: Well, to be honest, out of desperation. Pandora's Box is actually when I started doing it because I'd sold this idea of doing a whole series about politics and science and what the political ideas were behind the scientific ideas of the last thirty or forty years, and really, they're very difficult to illustrate. I mean, I was really desperate. There was one thing I made about the RAND Corporation and it was just a disaster until I suddenly realized you just throw anything in you like. It is out of desperation. And providing your writing is strong - the words are terribly important. Then the pictures, if you like them, other people like them. You put in jokes; there were people I had interviewed there that were really boring. I won't say who, but actually I discovered that if you put in images that weren't actually illustrating what they said, but made fun of them a bit, not in a nasty way, but played with them as you would if you were a novelist, you have a sort of counterpoint that points out their character. It sort of works. But it was out desperation late at night in the cutting room.

Eaves: Where do you draw your archive material from? The BBC archive?

Curtis: The great resource is the BBC archive. It goes back sixty years. There is a vast warehouse near Heathrow airport which is the grimmest place ever, but it's just got this amazing resource of images. For a lot of the news footage from the 1970s through to the early 90s, they've got all of the little clips that they ran into the studio. So you'll have a Beta tape which will last two or three weeks and I just sit there, playing it here and I've got a recording deck there and any image I like I just record and log and so when I then get desperate in the cutting room, I think, oh, yes, there was that shot of a mountain with a grey sky behind, that was rather beautiful, I could put that in there. It's out of desperation. And also because I don't like film crews. Film crews are really boring, they're dull; they believe that pictures are more important than words and they always want to go to restaurants and get fed. Actually, if they've done all the work for you and it looks better, then why not just steal it? It's cheaper. And then you can just do anything you want.

Marlow: You're quite adept at using music cues in very unusual ways.

Curtis: My great inspiration here is John Carpenter. The audio actually has so many soundtracks thrown in, just little bits of things. I tape bits of noise and shave bits off them and turn them around. The other reason that I love this is, in the early 90s, nonlinear editing systems came in and as they've gotten better and better I just took to them like a duck to water. The stuff now is just wonderful. I mean you put pictures in and literally you pull it and you stretch it like that and it's just... Sorry, we're getting off the point.

Marlow: No, it is the point. You're taking the notion of what a documentary is and you're...

Curtis: But you see, I don't think I make documentaries. I'm going to go on about this. I'm a journalist. I'm a modern journalist. I use pictures imaginatively to argue a piece of journalism essay-making. Documentaries are for people who make achingly plangent films with no commentary about graves in Bosnia. There's a wonderful place for those in television and in cinema but I do something else. I tell people about the world and I use my voice and I tell them what I think and I show pictures that I like. Also, the other thing I do is, I use the pictures to disguise the fact that I make great jumps. I often get asked, "Oh, why don't you write a book?" You can't, because actually, if you take all the pictures away, it would be rather sort of, not mundane, but... In a way, the pictures have a sense of disassociation. They stop people thinking, "Oh he's trying to Agit-Prop us." Instead, I'm having fun with this argument. I show quite clearly in the way I use pictures that this is an argument. I don't pretend that this is the voice of God, that this is an authorial thing. What I'm saying is, look, the world is very complicated and this is my argument, based on an assembly of facts which are not untrue, but this is my argument, and the way I use pictures shows that and it's almost like they know what they're going to get and they can argue with it. People love it. They know it's not true - no, I mustn't say that, but you're right, it gives a sort of distance to it, but also it's enjoyable.

Eaves: Don't you think though that if you did show The Power of Nightmares here on television, people would hear your British accent and assume that it is the impartial BBC voice of authority and fact?

Curtis: I think that's quite a good question. I don't know how my voice would come over. In Britain, my voice doesn't come over as authorial. It's slightly playful. It's quite soft. It's emotional and I twist and turn. The traditional voice of the BBC is deeper and has more gravitas. I talk fast and the films are a bit like that. It's a bit like meeting someone at a party who's a bit obsessed about something. And you're quite interested, but at the same time, you think, hang on, do I want to get away from this or not? You know what you're getting. But I don't know whether it would be seen like that in this country. If, in fact, just being a British voice, like, they all sound alike, don't they? You know what I mean? Would just confuse the matter.

Marlow: Could you tell us a little bit about the difficulty you're having getting your films seen in the U.S., theatrically or on television?

Curtis: What I'm more interested in is getting them on television. I'm in television because it's a powerful medium. Filmmaking's all very well, but really, you go out to a captive audience of liberals who basically sit there and nod and say, "Hmm, yes, that's very nice." The point about television is that it still has a wide demographic and I would love it to be on American television.

I don't know how it would work here, but at the BBC, I argued that, although these films are critical, you wouldn't know quite what my politics were. And actually, I keep my politics perfectly out of this. This is a very interesting area and I think that TV in my country is beginning to adapt to this. I don't know whether your television is; I think it's much more timid. It's really a simple question. Why can't television stations have Op-Ed pages? It's as simple as that. Why not? It's not like it's a polemic - I'm writing a critical piece. And you can't quite tell where it's coming from because it's factually based, but it is critical. What's wrong with that? There seems to be this thing in this country where they would want, within the same program, to have someone saying, "Well, Al Qaeda, as an organization, does exist." Which is stupid.

In this series, The Power of Nightmares, I am critical of the neoconservatives, I'm critical of the Islamists, I'm critical of the ways politicians from different parties have chosen to use the fear that emerged out of these actions. You couldn't tell what I actually think. My personal politics have nothing to do with this. I'm just grumpy because I can't understand why, for example, my own organization has reported things like these sleeper cells in the way they have. I can't understand it, they're so sloppy. They get it wrong. I have just been sitting in a trial about a so-called sleeper cell in my country and the jury quite rightly dismissed the charges against eight of the people and convicted one guy of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance because he was a nasty horrible Islamist who had downloaded some recipes from the Internet - from an American Supremacist site, interestingly - and tried to make the poisons.

The poisons were so pathetic that they couldn't even kill the mice they were tested on in the laboratory. The jury quite rightly said this is rubbish, got rid of the other cases and charged this man. He was a nasty horrible man - he'd also stabbed a policeman. Nasty. My own organization reported it as a perverse jury decision and said that the authorities had stopped a terror plot that, if it had happened would have had, quote, "consequences greater than 9/11." It was just rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I don't get it. That's what I'm grumpy about. There's no politics in this.

The trial was reported, then three days later, I was at the British Academy Awards. I got the award for the best factual series. I was sitting there listening to everyone go up, thank people, thanking this and thanking that, and I get so bored with that, so I finally get this award, I go up and make a speech criticizing the media for the reporting of the ricin trial saying that, as I show in my film, there is still this problem, let's hope that this award changes this because I can tell you that the ricin trial has been badly reported, including by my own organization. It was cut from the broadcast. By the BBC.

I mean, it's just weird. Actually, what I'm saying is, the thing that fuels these programs is not a sympathy for a particular side or another, it's just a general grumpiness about the way reality is being portrayed. And then on top of that, I'm trying to ask, well, why are they obsessed with portraying this fantasy? So there are two levels in my films. There is a factual story and then, on top of that, I try and say, hang on, why has this happened? And I say, well, it could be this. I don't necessarily believe that's true, I'm trying it out. And it's so weird, the way everything is being reported here and in my country; there must be some reason behind it.

Marlow: It's trying to get a handle on a secret history of the world?

Curtis: It's trying to work out actually how reality does work. How fact and fiction mix together and how that's then used by powerful organizations and why.

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"I don't think I make documentaries."
"Storytelling is what drives movies."

back to past articles


Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow

Hannah Eaves is an Australian-born writer and filmmaker currently based in the Bay Area. Her writing can also be found in Intersection magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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