The 2016 election has made soothsayers of any number of historians, academics and philosophers, but one of the few filmmakers who saw Donald Trumpcoming was the documentarian Adam Curtis. One might even argue that Trump’s victory was the closing argument of a thesis he has been refining and developing for the last 15 years.
Since his 2002 opus, The Century of Self, Curtis has traced the myriad ways in which the left has abandoned politics in favor of a radical individualism, online and off, that has allowed reactionary forces to metastasize in the West and across the globe. As he ominously declares at the beginning of his latest film, Hypernormalisation (2016), these forces are now puncturing “the fragile surface of our carefully constructed fake world.”
Drawing from the BBC’s vast video archive, Curtis’ films are ambitious, addictive and haunting. In The Power of Nightmares (2004), he charts the eery parallels between the neoconservative and radical Islamist movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the ways in which our political leaders have preyed upon our fears to maintain their grip on power. The documentary also examines the ways in which we’re still living in the shadows of the Cold War, decades after perestroika. The Trap (2007) offers a searing look at how Britain’s and the United States’ attempts to free themselves from bureaucracy have given rise to a bloodless and oppressive managerialism, while their efforts to spread democracy abroad have yielded only violent mayhem. All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, released in 2011, explores how our reliance on computers to forge a stable world has produced just the opposite.
Curtis spoke with AlterNet last week about a range of subjects, and then a strange thing happened, as he might pronounce in one of his documentaries. The Syrian government launched a chemical weapons assault killing scores of civilians, and the U.S. responded with a missile strike of its own. Or so the dominant political-media narrative would dictate. What follows is a composite of our conversation before and after, over the phone and via email—a fragmented Q&A for a complex and possibly unknowable moment in history.