Legendary political filmmaker you may not know, Adam Curtis, stands to benefit from the age of streaming.
Last weekend, LA’s famous Cinefamily hosted British documentarian Adam Curtis as a guest curator. Using his latest film, “HyperNormalisation,” as a thematic guide, Curtis selected a handful of older films that are relevant today, including “Blow Out,” “Super Troopers,” and “The Passenger.” This article is a response to last weekend’s event and Curtis’s understated place in the documentary landscape.
It’s worth asking what the scope of documentaries really is, and if they’re able to reach an audience broad enough to make an impact they share their information with. Certainly, “Blackfish” is the crown jewel of a documentary that had a tangible effect, to the point where conglomerate SeaWorld now addresses their mistakes in their commercials as a way to cling onto any good will. This is the outlier rather than the norm for nonfiction filmmaking.
However, for all the disruption that a streaming era of cinema has brought upon a neophobic industry, it has opened the doors for documentaries to reach wider audiences than ever before. This is potential for master documentarians to gain followings that would’ve never otherwise been exposed to their work. Ava Duvernay’s “13th,” produced by Netflix, stands out as a beacon of hope for educational, widespread documentaries to reach massive audiences. Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning documentary “OJ: Made in America” is proof that the restraints of yesteryear, notably the seven-hour runtime, are slowly being shed from the table so long as the material demands it (and that one most certainly does). There is room for many more films at this table.
One veteran documentarian who has seen an uptick in the advent of streaming is BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis. In the last 2 years, he has released two documentaries to the British streaming site BBC iPlayer: “Bitter Lake” in 2015 and “HyperNormalisation” in 2016. Prior to these films, Curtis made a vast number of educational BBC mini-series projects, which show him delving into long-form documentary. I discovered Curtis thanks to the film-heaven-on-earth known as Telluride Film Festival, where in 2015 he was an honoree in conjunction with “Bitter Lake.” It was there where I saw, without knowing what to expect, the power of his cinema.
It was there where I saw, without knowing what to expect, the power of his cinema.
“Bitter Lake” begins in the midst of World War II, with a meeting between two world leaders, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, at Bitter Lake, near the Suez Canal in Egypt. Over the course of a few days, these two leaders, despite massive cultural differences, made an agreement regarding Saudi Arabia’s oil that would shape world politics for the rest of history thus far. This meeting can’t be found in any textbook but it is well documented online. By titling his film after this, and using it as a starting point, Curtis frames the beginning of a history we may know pieces of but have never seen so comprehensively laid out. What follows is a thorough education on the United States’ involvement in the Middle East and continual hunger for power and resources. Using a wide swath of archival material previously never seen before, Curtis paints a history lesson that won’t be found in any textbooks yet gives a much more honest explanation for many of the world events we’ve witnessed in the last 70 years. He brings us all the way up to present day from that fateful meeting at Bitter Lake, and by then you may feel drenched in information but will leave with a much richer understanding of what decisions have led us to where we are. It’s an education that once heard, is impossible to forget.
Last fall, Curtis released his follow-up feature documentary, “HyperNormalisation.” Even more ambitious in its approach, from 1975 to present day, Curtis covers a scatter plot of topics including artificial intelligence, the internet, news & media, Syria, Libya, Wall Street, suicide bombings, conspiracy theorists, and Donald Trump. Using so many of these subjects, he weaves together a thesis argument suggesting how much our society has depended on fake information and artificial realities as a means of existence in the last 40 years. It’s even eerier considering the film was released on October 16th, prior to the 2016 election which Curtis inadvertently proves will not end well, due in large part to the way the internet works. This is really the tip of the iceberg: while not as cohesive as his previous film, Curtis nonetheless does not waste a minute in this runtime to engage his viewer, using his signature power of juxtaposition editing with his voiceover as a means to make a viewer think hard about all these subjects, and yearn for more education on this level. It’s admittedly hard to muster the energy to sit down for this amount of time (I confess I split this film into two separate sittings, a benefit of being online), but once you’ve come out on the other side, there are no regrets.
Curtis, unlike most of his peers, appears to be much more focused on getting his films out and available than trying to block people from viewing them: both of these films are available on multiple free and legal outlets online, including YouTube.
Curtis, unlike most of his peers, appears to be much more focused on getting his films out and available than trying to block people from viewing them: both of these films are available on multiple free and legal outlets online, including YouTube. This is pertinent to understand in an era where federal funding for the arts is about to be slashed: in simplified terms, because all of Adam Curtis’s filmography has been funded by the BBC, and presumably will continue to do so, he doesn’t have to concern himself about profit margins, he can focus on the art. This makes his work incredibly uncommercial (3-hour documentaries are always a tough sell) and yet unfiltered and works of brilliance. This is a great example of a government-funded institution providing a platform to an artist to prolifically produce work.
In the era of streaming, where audiences are becoming more receptive to documentaries as a choice viewings for their evenings at home, Curtis may finally have an opportunity to reach a wider American audience. “HyperNormalisation” is a perfect film for viewing online, and not only because it is free. The film is so densely packed with facts and information, you’ll need a moment to pause and soak in information. Occasionally, the facts and stories are so ludicrous you think they must be fabricated, but the Internet is built-in accountability and an opportunity to look up some of the information presented; although, funnily enough, one of the major topics is a critique of the Internet itself.
In the film’s section on computer & artificial intelligence development, a major section covers the generation of intelligence that merely feeds you back the same information you’ve given it. This has led to the ‘suggested viewing’ that we’re given all over the internet today, notably on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but also Netflix in what movies it recommends you. Eric Kohn of Indiewire recently published a critique of Netflix’s basic rating system, which doesn’t allow viewers to expand their horizons, a topic directly in line with a major section of “HyperNormalisation.” It becomes our own vocation to reach beyond what we’re fed, and find new horizons and sources of education as well as entertainment.
For me, Adam Curtis is a great start to this. His films will never show up on Netflix’s suggested viewing, yet are instantly available with a basic Google search (or the links below). Once you’ve watched his work, it’s no exaggeration to say that your understanding of the world will forever be altered, at the very least because you’ll learn something new. Perhaps it takes a non-American perspective to properly critique some of our country’s choices, especially with regards to the Middle East, which both films cover extensively. Regardless, you will have plenty to ponder and discuss afterward. Especially considering these films are free and accessible to you today, Curtis’s films are an undeniably worthwhile viewing.
HyperNormalisation (some links are minorly edited during songs for copyright reasons, these ones aren’t):