The Emotional Propagandist: A Conversation With BBC Journalist Adam Curtis

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Curtis was invited to Beirut last week by Ashkal Alwan to take part in an exhibition where he presented a lecture on the forgotten role of America's attempted coups in Syria in the 1950s and 1960s. (Photo: Ashkal Alwan).

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, December 16, 2013

Adam Curtis is a friendly anomaly in the world of journalism. An English journalist who has been working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) since the 1980s, he is renowned for his intriguing documentaries that juxtapose differing topics into a unifying narrative. The popularity and style of Curtis' films have mesmerized fans across the world and earned him numerous awards in England and elsewhere.

Curtis' work came to international prominence in the early 2000s, first in 2002 with “The Century of the Self,” which examined the use of Freudian theories on desire and self-awareness as a means for economic growth and political control of the public, and two years later with the broadcasting of “The Power of Nightmares” that drew parallels between the historical rise of political Islam in the region with that of the rise of neo-conservativism in the United States.

More recently, Curtis experimented with live shows like “It Felt Like A Kiss” and a collaboration with English trip-hop band Massive Attack called “Everything Is Going According to Plan,” to further penetrate the audiences' consciousness in even more peculiar ways.

Curtis was invited to Beirut last week by Ashkal Alwan to take part in an exhibition where he presented a lecture on the forgotten role of America's attempted coups in Syria in the 1950s and 1960s.

Al-Akhbar sat down with Curtis for a conversation about the evolution of his filming style, his ideas about emotionalized journalism, and the dawning of “neo-paranoia.”

Yazan al-Saadi: How would you define yourself? Your work seems to cross ties between being a filmmaker, a documentarian, a historian, and an artist in many ways.

Adam Curtis: I'm not an artist. I'm a journalist. Technically, I'm employed by the British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC) as a journalist. That's my job. I use film and my job is to report on the world. What I've done is I've chosen to do it in a particular way. There are two aspects of that.

One, is that I like going back into the past, telling stories from the past to push [the viewer] to look at the world – the present day – in a different sort of way. That's the thing I've developed.

And I also do another thing: I think that a lot of journalism on television is very rigid, very formatted [and] therefore people don't really look at it properly. So I try and break that by using techniques that I've borrowed from art or avant garde things I've seen. I just steal them and smuggle them in to what is mainstream reporting. I write sort of long essays about the present day.

I'm not a historian, I'm not an artist. I'm simply a journalist who borrows from history and from art and things like that because I think it's just an interesting way of being.

The one thing I try not to be is defensive. I can be pretentious, silly, possibly over complicated in my films but ultimately I try to be warm and approachable.

YS: Why is the past so important?

AC: Because we live in a time where it's really difficult to know what's going on. It really is. Just take now, 60 kilometers away from here there is a massive conflict going on in Syria. No one fully understands what it means.

For example, starting 2011 in this region, you have what people at the time thought was simple revolutions or rebellions, which have now turned four years later into things that we don't understand, from Bahrain to Egypt to Syria.

YS: When you say “we” you mean the Western audience?

AC: I mean the West. I can't speak further from it. We just don't understand them and we don't really seem to have the apparatus to understand them. We report them. My colleagues [at the BBC] do very good work reporting them, but we don't fully understand them. I think there are all sorts of ways to understand it. The way I have chosen to try and do it is to try and go back into the past to try and tell narratives that then bring you back into the present and hopefully make you look at it in a slightly different way.

YS: When you first entered the BBC did you always want to go to the archives or was this completely accidental?

AC: What I discovered quite early on is if you took a bit of archive from the past and edited it next to something from the present, it actually changed the way you saw the present day. It just did. It's a bit like subtly you bring something else into a room, it changes the whole way you saw the room.

The problem with reporting ‘the now' is there's no story. The events you all go through today will just be a series of events. They won't really be a story. Probably this evening, or maybe by the end of the week, or maybe by the end of the year, you will look back and sort of turn them into a story for yourself. But at the moment what you are experiencing with me, it's not a story. It's just an experience. But it's very difficult, if you are a reporter, to take those fragments of experience and tell a story. Normally you just fit them into the received wisdom of the present moment. Like for example the way we reported in the West [about] Egypt at the beginning: “Oh, it's a rebellion of people who want to be democratic against bad autocrats.”

So we turned it into that story and then fragmented events seemed to go off in another direction and we were lost. It's very difficult, for example, to report on Egypt. Now, what I would do if I was doing Egypt properly is I would go back and do the history of Egypt from [Gamal Abdel] Nasser onwards to show, for example ... how there has been an authoritarian strain within Egyptian society – there is a lot of other things in Egypt – [and] just by telling them that, you would change how they would see the fact that the military is returning to power. It would make more sense. That's all I'm trying to do.

YS: Do you think there is a shortcoming using such a selective form of information. It's the BBC clips, so isn't it filtered by that mentality, that paradigm?

AC: I'm very aware of that and when I'm using BBC archives I use it in two different ways. One, is literally I go and use shots. If someone has gone and shot in 1975 aerial shots of Chicago, they're there. I can use them in all sorts of different ways and I'm being selective and it's not really propaganda from 1975, it's just shots from 1975.

On the other hand, I can use a report about Syria, for example, from 1957 and say to people: “Look, this is the way they did it then, we can learn from that.”

That's what I have. What is the alternative? Radical communist filmmaking from 1957 [smiles]? Probably it didn't exist, and if it did it would be very dull and actually even narrower from the BBC. You live from what you have, and you use it either literally to illustrate something – in which the context is removed – or you are aware of it and you say this is how it was reported, which again is important because you are saying: “Be aware of how things are now reported.” The way the Lebanon is reported now, it's as selective as it would be in 1957.

I'm often accused of being a propagandist, in the sense that I chose a selection to put forward an argument – the facts are true, but then I put forward an argument. Well yes, I am a propagandist but I make it absolutely obvious that that's what I'm doing.

I'm using all my techniques of music and emotion to try and make you do that. But I’m honest about it.

YS: I just wanted to touch a bit on your talk at Ashkal Alwan. You spoke about Syria, I was wondering why did you decide to speak Syria and also, in your opinion, what does Syria represent in terms of the crisis of journalism in the UK?

AC: The reasons I spoke about Syria is because I think it represented the subject which I was really trying to talk about which is the crisis – not so much a crisis – the limitations that we now have upon us at the West of understanding really complex currents of history that was going on.

We are living at extraordinary times, enormous great changes going on, but we don't have the frame with which to fully understand it. What I was trying to talk about last night was not the history of Syria but the history of how we in the West – because that's where I come from – perceive the world at the moment and how limited that has become. Syria is a very good, and powerful, and dramatic example of that. And because the BBC archive had a number of interesting old films from the 1950s about Syria, I thought it would be interesting to come to Beirut and show them to people who are much closer to that conflict because it is surprising to see what Syria looked like in the 1950s through the eyes of the British.

It tells you a lot about the West's older way of looking at the Middle East and in particular Syria. I'm sure that someone who lived and was brought up in Beirut would look at them differently, I just thought as a small example of a bigger argument it would be interesting to show people. And I think they were. I run the longer clips and I noticed that people were quite intrigued in seeing what Syria was like in the 1950s.

YS: It's been almost 10 years since you've done “The Power of Nightmares,” looking back at the movie and the themes you've played with – power and terrorism – and where we are at now with the Age of Obama, the NSA/Snowden leaks, the 2011 Arab Uprisings, what do you think/feel about the evolution of those themes. Are we still in the same type of culture of paranoia or has it changed?

AC: It's changed. Partly because a number of people like me came along and said that this paranoid apocalyptic fear is overdone. It has run out of control. I wasn't alone, there were a number of us who just said, “Look, there is a serious terrorist threat across the world, but we have become taken over by an apocalyptic paranoia. That somehow our entire civilization and structure of power is threatened by that. And the politicians have become embedded in this.”

People were saying I was alleging conspiracy theories. Politicians just thought that fear was a good way of restoring influence and power over people and I tried to explain why it happened and that it run out of control. It's gone now. It really has.

The fear of a dark future has become more in context. It really has and there is an awareness of a sense of proportion now about the nature of the threat that threatens us. And another thing was arguing in that series is that contemporary Islamism, or that strain that comes out of Egypt and came out of the camps in Afghanistan, was on the decline in the 1990s and was not on the rise. What's now realized is that there are other forces now emerging in the Middle East.

The thing I'm really fascinated about at the moment is the way so many of the older institutions, including journalism, have receded away from understanding the world. Journalism is still trying to tackle it. The intelligence agencies – I'm very cynical about intelligence agencies … OK, I have a very cynical view of the Edward Snowden [reports]. I mean I think a lot of the stuff that came out with Edward Snowden is very interesting, but the shock about it is a bit like … it's two colliding professions, journalism and spies, propping each other up.

If I were to do a modern piece of journalism about Snowden I would say that the paranoia has absolutely no point to it in the way they are trying to approach it because it doesn't seem to stop anything. And it doesn't seem to have any proportional sense of what the threat is, that maybe that kind of Islamism that maybe wanted to attack the West has declined to an extent and what they called “al-Qaeda,” which basically was a loose network of that kind of Islamism is on the decline as well. The Salafists in Egypt, or what are called the Salafists, seem to be backing the military as a way of getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Isn't that more interesting?

These are the power struggles of our time that we don't seem to be bringing into focus and explaining to each other, and meanwhile [our] spies sit there listening to phrases that they seem deemed to be important and it doesn't get them anywhere.

I wrote a piece about my own internal security services called MI:5 arguing that they've never caught a traitor in their lives [and] that was their job. I'm awaiting evidence that this monitoring is doing anything. They say they've stopped lots of plots but we can't tell you what they are. That's not good enough. You can't claim something which you say you can't provide the evidence. It's just wrong. They've got to have transparency. Of course, they have to keep a certain sense of secrecy but we want to know … like we know what Google does.

We don't know the details but we know fully well that Google reads everything. You know. I know. But somehow in our brain we accept that, don't we?

And then we say the NSA reads everything and we go, “Oh that's terrible.” Isn't there a bit of paradox there? And also there's a paradox in the Left. A lot of the Left within the Geek world argue for total transparency of information. They want everything out there. Very good idea. But at the same time, they are completely shocked that the NSA reads everything. The NSA argues, we want transparency. The Left argues, we want transparency [but] we think the NSA are wrong. There are all these paradoxes at work at the moment that no one has really been resolved.

We moved into another era. The old paranoia has gone and maybe it's about time we started to have proper paranoia.

YS: A sort of neo-paranoia?

AC: A neo-paranoia. But it hasn't emerged yet. It will. I've said this theory that there's going to be a shift in the way the Internet has been seen. It will be a tipping point, where the benefits of it which at the moment seem to outweigh the fact that we should worry about Google reading everything. We think it's still magical and wonderful. Maybe it will go the other way. People go to less and less sites every day. Apparently everyone goes to about seven sites. That whole idea of exploring the magical world of the Internet is diminishing. I don't know, there might be a reaction against it.


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