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“I’m Not Interested in Cinema”: Adam Curtis on Bitter Lake

Bitter Lake

This weekend the True/False Film Festival will bestow its annual True Vision Award to BBC house provocateur Adam Curtis “in honor of his dedication to and advancement in the field of nonfiction filmmaking.” Although the 59-year-old Curtis doesn’t think of himself as a filmmaker, it seems like an apt choice; he’s become one of the cinema’s essential purveyors of historical counter-narratives. In films largely made for TV and internet audiences consisting mostly of found footage collage techniques, he uses an aesthetic language as indebted to experimentalist Bruce Connor as it is to the sensationalist evening news of the 1980s, making the case that Freudian psychoanalysis led to both modern marketing and political paralysis (The Century of the Self), that the1960’s was a dream turned nightmare no one woke up from unscathed (It Felt Like a Kiss) and, in his newest film, that Afghanistan’s problems lie in the Saudi-US pact for oil and protection at the end of WWII (Bitter Lake).

Since his 1992 breakthrough Pandora’s Box, which won a BAFTA for Best Factual Series, Curtis has produced a staggering body of filmic essays which open up the nexus points between modern technology and psychology, religious fanaticism and neo-conservatism, finding unlikely coincidence and mass dread, beauty and terror, in almost equal measure. On the occasion of his award, Curtis spoke to Filmmaker about the evolving nature of motion picture audiences, the unusual process through which he finds and selects footage with which to construct his arguments, the inherently conservative nature of social media and the unmooring of the west’s narrative about itself.

Adam Curtis
Adam Curtis

Filmmaker: Are you uninterested in this film being shown in cinemas?

Curtis: I’m gonna try it one other place, which is this film festival in middle America, True/False Film Festival, because I love them. They’ve always been very nice to me. Otherwise, I don’t know. I designed this for the Internet. It’s not designed for a cinema setting.

Filmmaker: What does that mean on an aesthetic level?

Curtis: I designed it as a thing you can stop and start and watch as much of it or as little of it as you want. It has a sort of closeness of feeling. I can’t explain it. Basically I designed it for BBC on the iPlayer. They can watch it when they want as much as they want, and I think its sensibility is designed for that. To sit an audience down in the dark and put it on a screen for two and a half hours and forcing them to do that is not quite what it’s built for, so I’m loath to do it. And also this is terribly rude: I’m interested in reaching other audiences than the sort of people who go to film festivals. That’s not to say that they’re not good people. They’re nice people, but I’m trying to get to another audience. I’ve always been interested in that other audience.

Filmmaker: What is the end to getting to that other audience? Why?

Curtis: They’re interested in modern questions of politics, power, what’s going on in the world. I know I’ve gone on about this, but I am just a journalist. I think there’s a whole audience out there that have sort of got bored with all sorts of traditional media. Not just movies like this, but television, the sort of stuff that my organization does — lots of traditional journalism. They’ve moved away from this, because it doesn’t respond to the way they see the world, their sensibility. It’s not quick and clever and emotional, and it’s not about politics and power. A lot of things have got very rigid. What I was almost self-consciously trying to do with this film was to try and break out of it a bit by fusing the sort of more traditional journalism that I do with the stuff I borrow from art, from all sorts of places. To try and create a new sensibility,  a new show. I know that audience, it’s online. 

I’ll tell you one other thing about this. If I let it be shown at film festivals, it somehow diminishes what it’s really for. It’s for the Internet, and it looks like I’m trying to get it onto film festivals. I don’t want to do that. It’s built for an audience online.

Filmmaker: This film feels like it’s expanding on some of the methods you began working out on It Felt Like a Kiss. That film also didn’t didn’t play many festivals at all. Was that due to some rights issues or because you were uninterested? That too feels like a film that — in its myriad digressions and the way in which it’s structured and the absence of voiceover — lends itself to stopping, starting and watching in a less cohesive way.

Curtis: No, it played. I played it at the True/False Film Festival. That film was about this new sensibility. While it was shown at the True/False Film Festival, I did a theatrical show with an immersive theater group, the Punchdrunk in Britain, where we built the world of that film. I think there’s a very interesting new sensibility emerging, which the Internet is part of, where people want to explore things themselves. So I let them do that and told them a story built on the fragments they’d just explored. I find traditional media, traditional television is much more formative and rigid. I like playing around.

Filmmaker: You certainly have a lot of room to play around given the format of the sort of found footage film. I believe that I read somewhere that you received something like 26 terabytes of footage from a forgotten BBC Afghan trove?

Curtis: Yes. The BBC has been filming in Afghanistan since the ’80s, much more since 2001. I don’t know if you know how news works, but the news team goes out and often the cameramen is really good and they film lots of stuff. Then it gets back to broadcast central and they just literally cut out ten seconds, 20 seconds, from an entire tape for the evening news, make a news clip, and the rest is just forgotten. Nobody sees it. A news cameraman I know has made it his mission to go and find all this stuff. And he brought it to BBC — no one wanted it, so he gave it to me. So I have 26 terabytes of the most amazing footage.

Filmmaker: How does your process start? Do you start with a thesis or a series of ideas that you think you’ll find within the footage? Or just through watching the footage the ideas that power your film begin to emerge?

Curtis: I wanted to do a proper history of our involvement with Afghanistan.

Filmmaker: When you say our, you mean —

Curtis: I meant the west, and Russia — America going back to 1946 and Britain going back before then. I wanted to do a proper history of Afghanistan, the real complicated struggles of power, because it’s fascinating. What I also realized as I watched that footage is that I had other stories, ones that are just as complicated, about this strange world, ones far richer than our simplifications of it were. I want to tell that grand narrative. But I also realized that sitting in the footage I’ve got my other stories, just moments, like an attempt at an assassination of President Karzai, which is in that film. The shot runs for, I don’t know, two to three minutes. It’s brilliant, the camerawork. I went back and looked at the news report. They literally took ten seconds out of it and made a news report with the exciting bit. What’s amazing about that shot is that it follows the motorcade. It witnesses the attempted assassination. The cameraman hides, like any sensible person would—

Filmmaker: And then he returns!

Curtis: And then like a brave person, which I wouldn’t have done, comes out and follows the motorcade and looked at the chaos that went on, and then went back to focus just on this motorbike that had been turned on its side with the bleeping noise. It was just so beautiful — it captured that moment. When you look at something like that, you think, well you’ve got a story there.

Filmmaker: I thought of that last shot in Vivre Sa Vie, the Godard film where Anna Karina is shot on the street, remember?

Curtis: Oh yeah.

Filmmaker: There’s the pan away to the killers. It kind of pans to her body and then pans down. It’s from a very similar kind of perspective.

Curtis: It just captures a moment. What I realized as I was watching this stuff is that I’ve got a grand narrative that I want to tell, but I’ve also got just incredibly detailed moments out of which people can construct their own story, so I wanted to offer an audience two things. I wanted to offer them a grand big story with an argument about our involvement with Afghanistan and the roots of the disaster there and what we couldn’t see, but also offer them something to reflect upon — the real richness and complexity of that country, which we never see. In a way I was trying to fuse the two together. Don’t know how successfully, but that’s what I tried to do.

Filmmaker: The movie leaves us at a very sort of perilous notion: that narratives our political leaders in the west have been telling us about these matters have been overly simplistic, overly moralistic, and are now collapsing upon their own illogic.

Curtis: Because they can’t fit with the reality.

Filmmaker: Right. So I’m wondering do you feel as though that’s beginning to change? Or rather that people are beginning to construct new narratives that are going to make more sense to our public? Or do you think they’re simply going to rely more and more on moralistic fables of —

Curtis: No, no, no.  It’s a question of the map and the territory. The map that our leaders have at the moment increasingly does not describe the territory that’s out there. That’s what I was trying to say. And I think that —

Filmmaker: And not just in Afghanistan, but throughout the Middle East.

Curtis: Everywhere. The Middle East, even in Europe. The simplistic stories about austerity that our leaders tell us obviously aren’t working here. I think it will change. I think new stories will happen. What I can do is try and show that. I can’t give you a new narrative, but what I was trying to do there as well was, in a way, go back to the territory. That’s why I was using those rushes. If we’ve got a map that doesn’t describe the territory, the first thing to do is to go look at the territory again. Like with that assassination shot, just show the richness and complexity of a world out of which people can start to say “Well, we’ve got to have a new map.” And I think they will come.

I mean, I’m an optimist. I just think we’re at the end of something. I think some of the weird absurdity I’ve seen of our economic theories are as absurd as some of the economic theories that the Soviet Union used to have at the end of the ’80s to try and justify its existence. The problem I have with politics at the moment is it’s so static. It’s so boring. And I’m not alone. Most people have moved away from politics, because it doesn’t tell a story that makes sense of your experience. It doesn’t thrill you, it doesn’t take you somewhere else. What politics should be doing is saying, “Look the world is incredibly complex, sometimes very frightening. Here — I’m going to make sense of it for you. And I’m going to take you somewhere, come with me.” It doesn’t do that any longer, so we’ve moved away. It’s thrilling, it’s dangerous — because someone will come along and possibly tell a story that might be dangerous. But it’s more thrilling. I think that’s what we’re waiting for, and I’m optimistic about it. I do think it’ll come from some corner that we can’t see yet.

Filmmaker: When you were making this film, were there potential subjects that arose out of the footage, ones you didn’t foresee, that couldn’t be contained in the two hour and 20 minute format you adhered too?

Curtis: I would liked to have done more about Saudi Arabia. I do think Saudi Arabia is absolutely fascinating.

Filmmaker: It’s almost as if Saudi Arabia is tangential, yet it’s at the very root of the thing, given FDR and Aziz’s pact that you allege was consummated on a naval ship in the Suez Canal.

Curtis: It’s at the root of more than that. What’s so fascinating at the moment is that we have all these revolutions in the Middle East and they’re all failing. The argument goes that it’s just because of Saudi Arabia, which is playing this really complex weird game in all sorts of ways, like with Iran. Some people have argued that what might happen if Israel bombed Iran is that Saudi Arabia would join with them in a war against the Shias. It’s a dangerous, complicated society, which we’ve sort of allowed to fester in the interest of geo-political power. It’s not a conspiracy theory.

Filmmaker: We’ve allowed it to fester in our thirst for energy.

Curtis: Energy, but also anti-Communism. All sorts of things like those. It was America’s big ally, tactically, in the Middle East. It was also a very good place to sell arms to. There were all sorts of reasons for it. It’s a bit like Russia in 19th century Europe. It’s the sick man of Europe, it’s the sick man of the Middle East. I would have liked to have done a lot more about that., and I might return to it. It’s difficult, because you can’t get in there.

Filmmaker: There isn’t as much footage I imagine?

Curtis: I mean, the BBC is very good. We’ve still got archives from there. A great film was made in the ’60s which I used some black and white stuff of. But no, not in a sense like Palestine. I do think that none of those revolutions that have stalled in the Middle East now will be solved until Saudi Arabia somehow changes, because it exercises such an iron grip.

Filmmaker: Since your last film before this one, you’ve been blogging quite a bit for the BBC — rather incredible pieces in which you do a lot of the things you do in your films, connecting various pieces of historical minutiae in a way that allows us to see things in a new light, using footage you’ve been researching. Has that changed how you make films?

Curtis:  I took the blog machine that I was offered and turned it into a much longer thing. Sometimes the machinery breaks, because I try and put too much in. They are long stories with essays and with footage, like you say. What’s good about it is I can actually describe things for which I don’t have footage. I can write it and then use the footage. I don’t have to have a picture for everything. What I learnt from that is there are areas that you can deal with that normally you can’t make films about. Like economics, for example, or computers. When I tried to make a film about computers, it was a total nightmare, because there’s nothing to illustrate it.

On a steeper level what I found out is that stuff on the web is much looser and freer, and your audience is much more happy to accept a provisional judgment on the world. They don’t expect it to be like, “This is it.” What they are happy with, is have you thought about it like this? They like that. That has made me loosen up in the way I make films and this thing specifically, Bitter Lake. I’m far less finger-wagging. I’m allowing to breathe more. I’m trying to make sense of all this chaos, and I think that sensibility is the new sensibility, the modern sensibility. I think a lot of journalists don’t realize this yet. They still want everything to be tied up and said, especially big documentaries, which is why people turn away from them. Because they think, “I don’t believe they know about that.” I think I try to demonstrate it this way just in the tone I use. In some of the footage I use, I don’t say anything. In a way I’m countering my own certainty. I’m just saying it’s really complicated. I’m not taking the piss out of myself, I’m just teasing myself a bit by just putting in something that might make you think that I’m simplifying a bit as well.

Filmmaker: Is there something about the theatrical experience that still does excite you or interest you as a filmmaker?

Curtis: I’m not interested in cinema. I’ve never been interested in cinema at all. To be honest, having a show on television is not the world’s most exciting thing. I mean, it’s exciting because your friends watch it and you can show off and hopefully you get good reviews and people like it. Or you get involved in a great big argument, which is also exciting. But I can’t be asked about film and the cinema world. I don’t know why, I’ve never been interested in it.

Filmmaker: How did you stumble into this kind of work?

Curtis: Well, because I’m basically a journalist. That’s how I started. I started as a newsroom hack, doing what was called current affairs. Then I went and made trashy television, but I taught politics before that. Other people may get the thrill of sitting in the dark and celebrating, the lights going down, this and that. I like the idea that I push out an idea — I mean, I like it if they agree with me and I hate it if they disagree with me. But I like it if you start something going. And, you know, that’s why I like Twitter, even if I don’t do it, because it’s best to be anonymous.

Filmmaker: But you like observing?

Curtis: Yeah. I like to watch.

Filmmaker: You have an anonymous Twitter account?

Curtis: No, I wouldn’t do that. The trouble is Twitter, it’s a bit of a self-selecting group. Facebook is more interesting, to be honest. But it’s good to just get something going, make people think about the world.

Filmmaker: Do you think that all that discourse that we’re having now online is aiding us in finding a more just solution to many of the issues that your film raises?

Curtis: To be honest, these days I’m getting rather skeptical about all that online debate. It’s lots of self-selecting little bubbles who all debate with each other and all try and please each other by saying the right thing. So they’ll be a group debating how female genital mutilation is really bad. Which of course it is really bad! But no one’s going to disagree with them and it’s very difficult to get new ideas in there. I like the online sensibility, but I’m worried about the way it’s going at the moment.

Filmmaker: Do you think that it’s actually perhaps increasing our political polarization by creating these echo chambers?

Curtis: Yes, absolutely. I have a theory that social media is a problem because it’s based on a feedback system of people constantly reinforcing each other, grooming each other online by wanting them to be your friend by saying the right thing. I think there’s another area of the Internet, which should re-emerge, which is where it’s not elitist. You just have people come along and say, “This is what I think, and I don’t care what you think. I’m just throwing it out there and I don’t want to know what you think.”

I don’t want to be part of the little group. I just want to throw it out. We’ve got to free the Internet from the geeks. The geeks built a really good Internet. The geeks believe in feedback and they believe in a current democracy where everyone talks to each other. Actually, it just leaves these little bubbles. There’s another form of Internet, which is a maturer, more content-driven Internet where people start writing the equivalent of books and doing insane things and going, “I don’t care. This is it. This is what I think.” At the moment that’s not happening. There aren’t really any good new speculative things sitting on the web. There’s lots of magazines and stuff and places where you can go and be happily reinforced. But it doesn’t surprise you these days, the Internet.

Filmmaker: Do you think that kind of dovetails with society’s lack of big ideas? The fact that we’ve become lacking in big ideals globally.

Curtis: I think in the absence of big stories out in the world, people retreat into themselves. They look after their bodies and their minds and worry about their well-being. They retreat into friendship that works and they retreat into their family. I’m not surprised that’s what you do if there’s nothing else out there. It’s a lovely way to be, but it leads to a very static world, and people like me want the world to be exciting and dynamic and dangerous and exciting and thrilling. I think that’s what’s next gonna happen on the Internet.

I’m not anti-Internet. I’m anti- the way it’s being captured by a very fake idea of democracy. That’s what I really think. The geeks hate me for saying it. They get really upset and I get Tweet lashes of hatred, but I do think a lot of social media is inherently conservative. It’s not actually causing the conservatism, it’s just reflecting it, because what else do you do? If those in charge don’t have a good argument and journalists don’t have new stuff to tell you and politicians don’t take you new places. To be honest filmmakers also don’t take you new places, but just come up with new iterations of old forms. What else are you gonna do? You’re gonna retreat into those little bubbles. I would like to break out of those little bubbles and get them all mixed up together again. That’s how revolutions really happen — that’s how the Iranian Revolution happened. That’s how the Russian Revolution happened, when different classes somehow break through to each other.

History constantly surprises people. At the moment we don’t have a sense of history. We have a sense that what you’re going to get tomorrow is pretty much like what you’ve got today. Even if the political parties change. That’s not going to last. Something will happen. I do feel we’re at the end of something. The Soviets had a name for it in the mid-’80s — the years of stagnation. I think we’re living through our years of stagnation. It’s not like the Soviet Union: there is a massively better lifestyle and a degree of wealth for most people. But what we are lacking is a sense of, “What is this project all for?” Just as the Soviet systems became more and more absurd by the ’80s, you could argue that our system from the ’80s onwards became more and more reliant upon money as a measure of everything. And everything is becoming monetized now. Everything. The Internet is part of it. You can monetize your house, your car. Uber is all about monetizing yourself. Everything becomes measured by this rational system of money. It’ll break, because it doesn’t work, and it hasn’t work properly since 2008. Maybe it might change radically. God knows what will happen, but it’s exciting.

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