Who's Really in Power in the Age of Trump? An Interview With 'HyperNormalisation' Director Adam Curtis

In a candid conversation with Haaretz about his widely popular and painfully frightening documentary 'HyperNormalisation,' British documentarian Adam Curtis explains why liberals are failing to change the world and why we're all a bunch of startled kittens.

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From Adam Curtis' 'HyperNormalisation.'
From Adam Curtis' 'HyperNormalisation.'Credit: BBC
Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf
Noam Sheizaf

The world we know ended in 2016. Against the background of the shock waves that struck Western elites in the wake of the results of the U.S. presidential election, the British filmmaker Adam Curtis emerged as one of the most successful and innovative documenters of this bizarre and dark moment. Three weeks before the American election, with perfect timing, Curtis released his latest film, “HyperNormalisation.” The film’s length (nearly three hours) is overshadowed only by its extreme ambition: to depict and explain the state of the West’s social and political consciousness this time, amid events such as Brexit, Trump, the war in Syria, terror attacks and, perhaps above all, the sense of anxiety, solitude and helplessness that characterizes the human condition today.

Even though “HyperNormalisation” was released only in the United Kingdom, on the BBC iPlayer, it has become a phenomenon (with people viewing it illegally online), and Curtis’ name has burst into the public domain beyond circles of Anglophiles and documentary film aficionados. The New York Times Magazine devoted an article to the film and its director; The New Yorker termed it an “essential document of our times”; and Errol Morris, perhaps the most esteemed documentarian around, said that Curtis is his cinematic hero and that his documentaries are “carving up the landscape of history in new and unexpected ways.”

That’s actually a serious understatement. Curtis’ films give one the sense that David Lynch has taken over educational TV. “HyperNormalisation” draws a picture that creates a connection between the rise of international big capital, LSD culture, radical Islam, the Israeli-Syrian separation-of-forces agreement in 1974, Facebook, Soviet science-fiction movies and more. It shows how, in the face of staggering complexity of the current-day world, the West’s leaders have sold their electorates a shallow, simplistic picture of reality, while the real decision-making power has shifted to different institutions altogether, ranging from financial conglomerates to technology corporations.

Against a dramatic collage of archival images, rock clips and electronic music, Curtis explains, in a measured, hypnotic voice, key events of the last 40 years, and the way in which those events led to the current sense of crisis. Among the protagonists are software engineers, Arab dictators, Tony Blair, a Russian political adviser, the singer Patti Smith and Donald Trump. Even Benjamin Netanyahu gets some screen time.

Curtis took his film’s title from Alexei Yurchak, a Russian-born researcher anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who used it to describe the state of consciousness in the Soviet Union during the period that preceded the collapse of communism. Every Soviet citizen was aware that the system wasn’t working, but the propaganda machine operated overtime and no one could conceive of a different reality. The result: Politicians and citizens alike continued to conduct an imaginary and twisted disconnected discourse. The West, Curtis maintains, is now caught up in a similar state of mind.

One can argue with the historical connections that Curtis draws, or maintain that he himself errs on the side of simplicity when it’s convenient for him. But the power of “HyperNormalisation” (and of its impressive 2015 predecessor, “Bitter Lake,” which dealt with the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan) lies in the mental state that’s created in the viewer. Curtis succeeds in talking to both the head and the gut. Even when not all of the specific details are absorbed, the viewer can't help but feel that he is being confronted with some sort of great truth that the film projects about the way in which we experience and understand this era. When everything is so weird, films, too, apparently have to be wacko, their role being to deconstruct reality into fragments and to recombine them into a completely different story, along the way forcing us to think again, and this time seriously, about everything we’d been taking for granted.

I spoke with Curtis on the day after the December 20 assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a man wearing a fashionable suit – one of those stunning scenes that recall movies more than news reports.

“If you look at the kind of films I make, I tend to collage things, so I began to realize that the world was beginning to look a bit like a collage film. Have you ever seen one of the great short animal films, called ‘Startled Kitten’? You really have to look at it online. Something goes on, and the kitten’s eyes go wide open, and then it closes again. Open and close. I realized that’s what happening in our world. Some extraordinary event would happen and everyone would act like a startled kitten and go ‘Oh, my God,’ and the journalists would go ‘Oh, my God,’ and the opinion writers would write theatrical pieces about what this might or might not mean, and then everything would stop and nothing would change.

“This is the really strange thing about this incredibly dynamic world: Things would change just out of the blue and then absolutely nothing would happen. So for example, in my country you had an enormous media storm about what was called the Chilcot report on the invasion of Iraq [released in July 2016], which basically said the government made certain aspects of it up. Everyone said this is outrageous, and that people should be prosecuted – which they should, because it led to a ghastly war – but then nothing happened. Nothing. Or the financial crisis of 2008 to 2011: Week after week there were revelations of criminality on the part of high-up people within the financial services. You’d actually have one of our leading banks revealed to have been working with Mexican drug cartels, and the bank admitted they'd done this – but then they weren’t prosecuted because, ‘it would destabilize the system.’

“At that point I realized we were living in a very strange world. Things come and go and no one quite knows why, but when they come and go, nothing actually changes. That’s why I called my film ‘HyperNormalisation.’ We know something very odd is going on, it feels sort of unreal, but because you haven’t got anything to measure it against, you just accept it as normal. The ambassador in Turkey gets shot, the assassin stands there in a suit, and you view these images and go ‘Oh, my God, this is so strange,’ and then things move on, and we don’t know what it means. So we accept it as normal.”

'We know something very odd is going on, it feels sort of unreal, but because you haven’t got anything to measure it against, you just accept it as normal. '

History moving away

Could it be that only liberals experience this shock from the world right now? Because in Israel, there are many people and forces that seem pleased with the current world, or at least feel that they have the winds of history at their back.

“It’s true that groups of liberals throughout the Western world, and actually throughout the Arab world as well, feel that history is moving rapidly away from them, and they can’t bear it. But there is wider evidence that actually everyone feels like this. In my country it’s Brexit, and in America, Donald Trump. You had a lot of people who felt that the main streams of power have led them into a very strange and insecure place, and that everything is very odd, and rather fake. They were presented with a very big button that had the words ‘f--k off’ on it, so they pressed that button. But the roots of their dissatisfaction are exactly what I was describing: that nothing makes any sense and that those in charge had no idea, while some rather unscrupulous forces – both financial and military – are making millions of people’s lives much worse.

“The next question is whether Trump or the Brexit movement are actually going to be able to move history on, whether they really have the winds of history behind them. I’m not convinced of this. I have this lurking suspicion that someone like Donald Trump is like a vaudeville character who’s there to make us all outraged, while real power carries on. Maybe the strangeness we feel is because power has shifted toward a system of managing us, while at the same time politics, or what we used to call politics, took a strange distorted form of entertainment, which keeps us not happy, but enervated.”

Wasn’t politics always a form of a show, or entertainment?

“Of course politics had a form of entertainment, because, in a bubble, it tells us a story about the world. But at the same time, we knew politicians had an idea of what they wanted, even if they were representing something pretty static. Even if they just wanted to keep the world as it was. What’s different about our age is that we know that they don’t know what’s going on, and they know that we know that, so you go into this feedback loop of panic.

“Think of what happened to journalism. It was one of the main motors of mass democracy. What journalists did was to go out and find stuff that was happening, and if it was bad they would report it, and people would read the stories and put pressure on the politicians to do something about it. It was a natural feedback loop of information being used to actually change the world. Now if you look at the event set of the past 20 years, but more so of the past 10 years, there have been constant revelations by journalists of bad things – ranging from the behavior of the banks to the behavior of the politicians on Iraq and on the war on terror – but nothing ever happens.

“An interesting man I talk about in ‘HyperNormalisation’ is an adviser to Putin called Vladislav Surkov, who exploits these conditions in a completely new way. In the past, politicians manipulated and shaped our perceptions in order to get what they want. Surkov admits that he’s doing it, so he confuses us even more. He’s actually honest about the fact that no one really knows what’s going on, but he does it in order to destabilize us, so everyone knows that everyone else doesn’t really know what’s going on.

“Like Surkov in Russia, Trump would say things and the journalists would go, ‘this is outrageous because its not true,’ expecting that somehow as a result of that everything would change. I suspect, however, that Trump’s supporters knew very well that it wasn’t true, but they sensed that those statements somehow undermined the old systems of power, which they were happy to do. The moment that everyone knows things are lies but they are happy to accept them, then the truth-telling aspect of journalism is completely muted. It’s screwed.”

So what are journalists supposed to do? Stop looking for facts?

'I have this lurking suspicion that someone like Donald Trump is like a vaudeville character who’s there to make us all outraged, while real power carries on.'

“If you look at what’s happened to the relationship between journalism and politics over the past 10 years, something’s gone wrong. What journalists say seems to have no influence on the world, and we’ve got to start finding out why. One of the things I was trying to say in ‘HyperNormalisation’ is that it’s because politicians have given away a great deal of their power to systems that the journalists don’t even understand.

“It’s not about truth, it’s about your truth having an effect on the world. Because that’s the whole point about journalism. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’ It’s, ‘I’m going to tell you a story in a way that allows you to understand the world and therefore to change it.’ If this doesn’t work, then you’ve got to go find out why that is. Go and understand those new systems of power, go and look at how the algorithms that shape the information that comes to you in your Facebook newsfeed actually segment you and leave you relatively powerless, find out if you can you break it. Can you use it in a new way? Instead of continually turning out columns about the truth which have no effect, instead of writing columns about whether this is or this is not 1914, go find out how the modern world really works and where power really is. This is the information that people need at the moment. Michael Lewis does it about the banks. There’s great investigative journalism around, but journalism in the general generic sense has become part of the vaudeville. You’ve got to pull back and see what the vaudeville is.”

‘Oh dear-ism’

Adam Curtis, 61, has been working in documentary television for 35 years. He was born in Kent, England; his father was a cinematographer. The family leaned toward socialist views, though it’s hard to tag Curtis himself politically – many in the British left accuse him of conservatism. He studied human sciences and taught politics in Oxford, but left academia before completing his Ph.D. He began to work at the BBC in the early 1980s, and with time, was given an increasingly free hand there to make surprising, breakthrough documentary series, in content and style alike. “Pandora’s Box” (1992), which dealt with the danger of technocratic rationality in politics, in both East and West, garnered him a BAFTA award, the highest accolade in British television and filmmaking. His 2004 series “The Power of Nightmares,” about the parallel rise of Islamism and neoconservatism, made him known to audiences outside Britain, mainly in the United States. His more recent work has not been broadcast on television but is easily available on the web. Curtis appears to accept this unusual means of distribution, at it allows him to remain pirating at the heart of the BBC’s journalistic world, while also being, somehow, outside it.

“Television people are amoral, they’re not immoral, they’re amoral, they just want an audience. And they tell you that the way to do that is to go find a human story – which is true, because people do like human stories, but you can only generate so much from one human story. I come from a completely different tradition: I’m not really a documentarist as much as I’m a journalist, and my view is that if you want to entertain and you don’t just want to be locked off into tiny human stories, you need to go and find another way of entertaining. I think that a problem with a lot of documentaries when they try and tackle subjects from a political point of view is that they become quite boring. You know what they’re going to say about five minutes into the film. They don’t surprise you.

“I come from a different tradition, in which you go and find stories that do surprise you – all kinds, small ones but also big ones – and pull them together in a way that really does surprise you.

“I would suddenly put songs that last three minutes in the middle of the film. It’s entertainment in a way, but it’s entertainment trying to pull you in so now I can tell you things. We live in a very emotional age, so why not use the emotional forces that people are actually interested in to try and get over big points?

“I think a lot of political journalists on television don’t understand that. They still think it has to be dry and separate from culture. The water we swim in is fundamentally cultural. Music, films, novels, stories of those kinds – I wallow in that mix of stuff and I use it to engage people. A lot of television journalism just doesn’t do that. It just has long shots of reporters driving through terrible situations gazing blankly, thinking ‘this is terrible.’ You feel somewhat alienated from it.”

Still, there is something very threatening about this bombardment of images, some very graphic, over three hours. I know people who said that the film makes them want to run away and hide.

“I think that’s more of a reflection of the mindset of liberals at the present moment. What I was trying to do is to report on what was happening, and if that makes you want to run away, then I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept that people who don’t want to run away – like the people who support Donald Trump and Brexit – are going to take central stage. It’s up to you. I can make a movie that tells you, liberals, that everything is okay, but it would be untruthful at the moment. We’re living in a strange time, when power is shifting, and the whole liberal understanding of the world is being challenged.

“I mean, it’s not me they’re running away from, it’s everything. It may be that I’m pointing it out in a slightly dramatic way, but I don’t think I’m being untruthful. Those people in my country, and in your country, and in America that are privileged, have high wages and are concerned with the world, are not standing up and doing anything. They’re running away and retreating. I have a phrase for it, it’s called ‘Oh dear-ism’ [the title of two short films made by Curtis]. The people who read the news in the morning see that a hundred refugees have been drowned in a boat in the Mediterranean and they look at their partner and then they say ‘Oh dear,’ and that’s it.”

You deal in “HyperNormalisation” with the Occupy movement, which had a sort of an Israeli version that had unprecedented numbers of people protesting. Wasn’t that such a moment, in which the people you are referring to tried to deal with the world?

“I don’t know about the Israeli Occupy movement, but I can tell you my sense about the Occupy movement here and in America. It was an extraordinary moment that promised a great deal and it completely and utterly failed. And the same thing happened in Tahrir Square in Egypt, which again promised a great liberal revolution, and instead what happened was that two years later those same liberals that toppled [President Hosni] Mubarak welcomed the generals back. In Greece you had a government elected on a popular mandate to challenge the central economic consensuses of the European Union, and within two months they’ve given in.

'The people who read the news in the morning see that a hundred refugees have been drowned in a boat in the Mediterranean and they look at their partner and then they say ‘Oh dear,’ and that’s it.'

“Why again and again, when liberals promise to change the world, do they fail, and the world clicks back to its hypernormal situation, where you and I and all the other liberals know that things are wrong but nothing ever changes? That’s what I was trying to get at in the film, and if that makes you feel depressed, then in a way you should be.

“To say that lots of people came out – well, that’s not enough. The thing I always point to is the Civil rights movement in America. Young, white activists and young black activists joined together, went out onto the southern stage in America, and for years worked in extreme danger. Many of them got beaten up, some got killed, but they changed the world. They surrendered themselves to something bigger than their own individuality.

“We live in a world where liberals in my country came out and marched against Iraq on one day in 2003, using the slogan ‘not in my name,’ then went home and thought to themselves ‘well, that’s not a war in my name, so it’s not my war any longer.’ And they did nothing. That’s a big shift. That’s a big shift in the courage of liberals.

“It’s not just the bad politicians, it’s not just the horrible economists on the right, it’s not just the terrorists. Of course all of them play their role. It’s also us. We’ve been complicit. Because we can’t cope with the growing complexities of the world, or feel we can’t, we have retreated too. Maybe your friends didn’t like the film because it makes us examine ourselves. But liberals have got to start examining themselves if they do want to change the world. They haven’t done very well in the last 20 years, have they?”

The ‘me’ culture

What sort of things should they examine?

“Two things, I think. One is the culture of ‘me,’ in which is I refuse to join other groups. This is a really big problem for all political change. You only manage to change the world through collective political action, because when people are joined together they’re powerful. Like in Tahrir Square, when they got rid of Mubarak, a terrible dictator who had been supported by the West for 30 years. But then they had to face the other fact, which is that they didn’t have an idea of what they did want. And a nasty, right-wing, reactionary group that did know what they wanted – the Muslim Brotherhood – swept into that vacuum and took power.

“And this is the second thing, which is really key: Liberals have confused process with idea. They think that just by organizing in different ways, it's enough. Actually, what you want is a goal. If you scratch the liberals, they were saying they don’t like things and that they are scared, but what do they want? If you really do want to change the world in a fundamental way, you’re going to have to change the structure of power, but then everything is up for grabs. It’s a bit like being in an earthquake: Even the earth is suspect, nothing is fixed and that’s really frightening. If you don’t want that, what do you want? Do you just want the banks to be a little nicer? Is that it? The dark, cynical side of me says they don’t really want change.”

I almost sense that among liberals, people don’t want to speak about power, because power seems vulgar or something.

“But you have to. You have to. The one thing no one talks about is power. The only place that you talk about power with liberals is ‘Game of Thrones.’ It’s their playground, they go watch it on HBO and then they can talk about power. I think it has to do with the rise of individualism, this idea that somehow the individual is the most important thing and the whole notion of being part of groups that are powerful or not powerful has just disappeared. The other half of ‘HyperNormalisation’ is trying to show where power has gone to, and where it now resides. Because we’re not going to change anything until you actually understand where power is these days.”

'Facebook’s newsfeeds separate us out into segmented groups where we all agree with each other, keeping us separated. And that disempowers us.'

One of the places you point to is the big tech corporations, like Facebook. It’s strange that there is very little conversation of them in political terms. Is it because we think of those companies as representing “the right” values?

“It’s true that everyone there believes in the same good values – you know, in feminism and gay rights – but that doesn’t mean that actually those aren’t very powerful forces shaping you in such a way that you have been disempowered. I would argue that those same liberals who write all the nice code for Facebook’s newsfeeds, are actually – not intentionally – they’re actually separating us out into segmented groups where we all agree with each other, keeping us not locked away, but separated. It’s like in a farm; we’re all put into our separate fields. And that disempowers us.

“In the liberal imagination, especially in the way it has decayed over the past 20 years, we divide the world into the goodies and baddies. There were good people like us, and there were innocent people like the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein, and then there were evil men like [Muammar] Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein. But the real truth about power is that it isn’t a world of goodies and baddies. It’s a really complicated one, where goodies, like people who work for Facebook and Google, actually create a system of power that may not be very good for us, and may limit our ability to change the world, and may allow financial groups and private equity to do all sorts of things we wouldn’t approve of. So there isn’t a goodie and a baddie.”

So what should we do? Leave Facebook? You can’t really escape it.

“I have two views: One, that it is good to know, and to report on it and to understand that. Facebook is eating journalism, it began to eat television as well, so you can credit it as being powerful. But my other view is, I suspect people might get bored. The thing about social media is it can’t really tell you a story. It’s engineering based on feedback, it constantly monitors your past behavior and gives you new versions of it, so in a way it’s standing still. And I wonder whether that is its ultimate weakness.

“What social media wants you to do it is to keep what they call ‘engaged.’ Engagement is the big thing. To do that they constantly have to feed you stuff that makes you engaged, and I think it’s become more and more hysterical and more and more repetitive. People are turning away from Twitter because it’s full of angry men – and some women – who simply troll each other. It’s boring. So I wonder whether in fact the internet may become, in 10 years’ time, this wonderful extracurricular place where we go to have fun, like some strange decayed inner city in 1980s’ America, full of really strange people. You go there to have fun, but then everyone moves outside to something else, and that something else – I don’t know what it would be.”



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