By Hannah Eaves and Jonathan Marlow
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?
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