No one makes films like Adam Curtis. With his magpie eye for idiosyncratic outtakes trawled from the vast trove of news footage in the BBC archives, the singular filmmaker stitches together exhilarating, sleepily soundtracked histories that sprawl across eras to shed light on the unseen powers shaping our world. Last year’s masterful HyperNormalisation plotted a labyrinthine course from 1975 in bankrupt New York and Assad-ruled Damascus, through Kissinger, Gaddafi and Trump, with detours via Jane Fonda, Tarkovsky, UFO sightings, disaster movies and on into the echo chambers of the internet. He is currently deep in his next project, with a timely focus on Russia and its relationship to the West. We spoke to Curtis about the emotional age we live in and how a reality TV star became US President.


Was there a specific story that became the germ of HyperNormalisation?

It was two things. One was the story of Colonel Gaddafi’s weird relationship to the West over the past 40 years. How he was invented as a fake global villain, then banished into oblivion, then reinvented as a hero after the Iraq invasion and then turned into a villain again — and the West helped to kill him. It makes you realise how fake, hypocritical and downright creepy so much of the Western establishment has become. The other was the odd fact that every time that liberals and the left tried to change the world, they failed, from the Occupy movement to Tahrir Square. I wanted to know why. But underneath I wanted to try and explain why we all feel as we do today: uncertain, distrusting everybody in power, and terrified of what the future might bring. It doesn’t have to be like that, but we accept it as somehow normal.

If there’s a theme connecting all your work, how would you describe it?

Early on as a journalist I began to see how power was becoming more complicated. Politicians still had a great deal of power, but there were all kinds of other channels through which power was flowing. Through finance and international systems of trade, public relations and consumerism, and the algorithms that shape how we navigate the online world. My films attempt to show people the real forces shaping their lives, that often go way beyond politics. I’m not talking about dark, shadowy forces or conspiracies — the new systems of power stand in plain sight. But they go unnoticed because so much of journalism is trapped within the Westminster bubble, and all the other bubbles that surround the political centres of the West. I try and challenge that view, pull back and see how power really works in the modern world.

What does Trump’s win tell you about the world we’re living in today?

Many of us — not just politicians, journalists, think-tank experts and media pundits, but also large parts of the liberal middle classes — have retreated into a simplified and unreal version of the world. As a result we all became blind to what was happening outside. Trump’s victory was a dramatic example of that. It showed how so many of the elites who dominate the media and politics have been living in a complete dream world.

Do you foresee his presidency as having a big impact?

If Trump is going to deliver on his promises he is going to have to challenge these new global powers. They are very strong and entrenched, and if he fails things may just go back to where they were. With ever more discontent out on the margins. Or — and this is the optimistic view — his failure will bring the new systems of power much more into focus. And that could be very good for the liberals and the left. It could re-energise them. They need to understand the real enemy and stop blaming people who voted for Trump. If they did then perhaps there might be real change coming from the left, instead of the pantomime radicalism of the past ten years.


What are you searching for as you sift through thousands of hours of footage?

Part of it is like shopping — I just drift, watching lots and lots of tapes, and when I see an image that grabs me I’ll play it to myself and think how it might evoke a feeling or mood. So much television is so literal — in factual reporting they tend to use the same images again and again. My aim is to make people look at events in a fresh way.

Is there a bit of footage you came across recently that particularly fascinated you?

One was from the war in Afghanistan. It was a shot of a British soldier resting in a glade of trees. Then a bird comes and sits on the end of his rifle. They sit watching each other for over two minutes. Then the bird jumps on to the soldier’s hand and they sit there watching each other, with both of their heads going from side to side, connected. Finally the bird jumps on the soldier’s head and they both turn and look towards the camera. The whole shot lasts for about six minutes. It was just beautiful. You could say all kinds of pretentious things about it — how in the midst of war there is hope, etc. But actually it just was what it was. I like something like that very much.

Your approach doesn’t necessarily fit into more traditional, rigid formats. Do we need new ways of telling stories?

We live in a very emotional age. What we feel, what we desire, what we fear has become central to the way we think of ourselves. It’s a society of ‘me and my feelings’. I’m not sure a lot of journalism has caught up with this. Fifty years ago, reality was what politicians and other people told us it was, but today what goes on inside people’s heads has become the central reality. You see it in the stories people create about their lives on social media. The journalism of the future is going to have to find a way of reaching into those bubbles people have created for themselves.

What’s the subject of your next film?

I’m planning a film about Russia and the West. I’ve got my hands on the unedited footage of everything that the BBC has shot there over the past 35 years. Some of it is extraordinary — beautiful and complicated. Partly the film will be about Russia’s recent history and what is really happening there now. But it will also be about what Russia tells us about ourselves in the West, and the way we see the world. Russia at the moment is weird, frightening and dangerous — but then so are we. I want to examine how much of ourselves we are projecting onto Russia, and what lies hidden behind that simplified screen.

Photos credits: HyperNormalisation, 2016. All images courtesy of Adam Curtis/BBC