The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis – who has spent most of his career making work for the BBC – has a cult following, and HyperNormalisation is his latest sociopolitical collage piece, made for the BBC’s iPlayer service (like most of his films it was quickly made available on YouTube, though will no doubt go through a cycle of being taken down/put back up again during the next few weeks). Curtis’s style has gradually been honed since his career began over 30 years ago, but during the past 15 years in particular a consistency of approach across works like Bitter Lake, The Power Of Nightmares and All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace means that today he is considered an auteur with a distinctive, authoritative voice, and is for my money one of the most interesting British filmmakers working today. If you haven’t come across his films before, or his earlier TV series, they tend to use interesting archive footage (sometimes shocking, often juxtaposed with unexpected musical choices) and concentrate on different aspects of modern life and recent history, connecting together various recurring subjects: techno paranoia, economics, war, politics, the media, neoconservatism and fundamentalism.
In HyperNormalism Curtis takes a broad look at some parts of the world in 2016, arguing that the world we see before us is an elaborate construct, and that those in power have lost control. To illustrate this he chooses some of the stories that currently dominate the headlines – in simple terms ‘the European refugee crisis’, ‘the war in Syria’, ‘the rise of Donald Trump’, ‘IS’, ‘suicide bombing attacks’, and more; and the writer-director traces these connected issues back to 1975, initially suggesting that certain events taking place in both New York City and Damascus that year served as catalysts for change, leading indirectly (or directly, if you’re happy to go along with the train of thought) to the world we live in today, in which a dangerous man with extreme views who has made lots of money from ropey property deals can potentially become one of the most powerful people in the world, or where people regularly seem to be willing to blow themselves and lots of other humans up in crowded areas in the name of a cause. It’s an interesting, and pretty tenuous opening section – especially when Patti Smith is invoked as some kind of representative of growing political apathy among mid-70s American youth, when I would have said that her music had exactly the opposite effect on a lot of people – but it sets the tone for the near-three hours of material that lies ahead; not everyone will be willing or able to go with Curtis’s confidently-delivered statements and accept everything he says, but his perspective does at least usually lead on to fascinating ideas while also raising pertinent questions.
The film addresses events within and personalities from America, Russia and (more generally) the Middle East and North Africa, with an emphasis on both Libya and Syria. The rest of the world – China included – barely features, so despite its sprawling nature HyperNormalisation does have some focus, and although it is incredibly ambitious it’s not over-ambitious; you might think it strange that a film concerned with global politics during this time barely touches on the recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they are subjects Curtis has addressed at length elsewhere, and he has not set out to provide a temperature check of the entire world. This film does have plenty of space, though, for changing economic models, technological advances and the rise of the importance of cyberspace, and how the web has changed and distorted our own perception of the world over the years. One of the central themes here is about predictability: the internet has become governed and shaped by corporations using sophisticated algorithims – I mean one or maybe more of these is more than likely the sole reason that you’re here, reading this – and Curtis argues that technology has been used to help create a pacified, accepting society while also (purportedly) reducing risk in global finance, bringing a certain amount of stability to the world (for better or for worse). Yet, if that is the case, why does the world today seem less stable? Curtis shows how warfare has become more unpredictable during the past 30 years, to the point where people fly planes into buildings, or to the point that no-one outside of Russia actually knows for sure what Vladimir Putin’s endgame is with regard to the current situation in Syria.
The various strands often come together satisfactorily, and yet the film feels loose and chock full of debatable points and train-of-thought passages all the same. Certain statements can be argued against or backed up with facts, even though Curtis’s film is so breathless he rarely stops to do so, while others will (probably) not stand up to any kind of rigorous analysis, though you’d be hard-pressed not to come away from HyperNormalisation with a slightly different perspective, or a greater knowledge of global affairs, or – at the very least – some food for thought. The techniques employed by Curtis – particularly through editing or musical choices – help to create a sense that the world is spinning out of control while history repeats, and on a visual and aural level his latest is as stimulating as ever. I’ve grown tired of seeing brutal images such as bloodied rooms or bombs unexpectedly detonating married to cool music (regular collaborator Robert del Naja (Massive Attack) is involved with the selection again) but I can’t deny that the director knows how to employ these to jolt the viewer occasionally and he uses them well to change the pace. It’s a fascinating piece of work, and it rewards the patient viewer, though I’m not sure it’s the director’s most cohesive and rigorous film.
Directed by: Adam Curtis.
Written by: Adam Curtis.
Editing: Adam Curtis.
Running Time: 166 minutes.