Monday, 22 February 2010

The Sixth Best Television Programme Of The 00s

Hello to all the people who’ve visited here from the link on UK Resistance. This might not be the best update to try and judge the worth of the blog as a whole, because we’re going to spend an update thrashing around frantically in the waters of global politics. We’re normally more… ‘interesting’ probably isn’t the right word. Sarcastic would be closer. Anyway, pull up a chair, and please think twice before leaving a comment saying how we don’t know anything. We already know that.

[Update: Well, that’ll teach us to post the article after only re-watching 2 hours and 40 minutes of a three hour long series. Addendum in italics below.]

imageThere have been a few Adam Curtis documentaries we really could have chosen to make the list. 2002’s The Century Of The Self, 2007’s The Trap, or 2009’s web-only It Felt Like A Kiss (an ambitious mixed-media documentary ‘broadcast’ at one point on the BBC website, which we’re saying would have counted) were all more than deserving of a place here, but we’ve gone for the series that really made us stand up and take notice (metaphorically. We didn’t actually get off the sofa). While John Pilger has still been putting together memorable, thought provoking work, it is now Adam Curtis who we would say is the most arresting documentary maker on British television, and The Power Of Nightmares is his crowning moment.

If there has been a central theme of the last decade, it was pretty much “be afraid, lots of people you’ve never met want to kill you. We can help”. This theme was perpetuated throughout much of the decade, not only by the people in power, but also by the media, able to use the fears of ordinary people to move more units, to sell more advertising space, and keep their audience so engrossed by the ongoing threat they’d keep paying attention. And that hasn’t just been the case in the West, but as Adam Curtis points out in this compelling series, in the Middle-East too – and not just since 2001. While 9/11 proved to be the point where the politics of fear became huge, it has been going on since the birth of contrasting ideologies Neo-Conservatism and Islamism in the 1950s and 1960s.

imageScreened on BBC Two in 2004, and commendably released into the public domain soon afterwards, The Power of Nightmares compared the rise of the Neo-Con movement in the US with the radical Islamist movement throughout the world, comparing their origins and noting the similarities between the two. Controversially, documentary maker Adam Curtis used the series to argue that the threat of radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organised force of in the form of al-Qaeda, is in fact a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries - particularly American Neo-Cons - in an attempt to unite and inspire their people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies. The route to this point takes in a number of stops that make absolute sense. The downfall of the Soviet Union was seen as a victory for the US, but that left the Neo-cons with a desperate need for a new bogeyman.

Curtis touches on themes seen in his most recent offering, the short film from Newswipe on how “we’re all turning into Richard Nixon” – high-ranking officials in the Whitehouse could engineer national defence policies based purely on suspicions, assumptions and paranoia, even if it would prove to be costly, controversial and deadly. However, this wasn’t necessarily carried out with any malicious intent - the underlying thought was originally that overstating the menace of the Soviet Union was necessary to help rescue the USA from falling more deeply into moral decline, to reassert the McCarthy-era feeling of being The Good Guys, up against The Bad Guys.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, an underground grass-roots movement was taking place to overthrow a president seen as corrupt, and bankrolled by Western banks. As President Anwar Al Sadat took part in peace talks put in place by Henry Kissinger, the growing (self-proclaimed) Islamist movement were able to portray the president as in league with the West, and a traitor to Islam. From that point, things got… well, even if you’re not a keen follower of Egyptian history, you can probably guess it doesn’t involve a lot of hugs and a talking cartoon camel.

imageAs you might have been able to tell by the way we write with much more authority when the programme we’re talking about is a sitcom or cartoon, we aren’t keen followers of Middle Eastern history, and have only really taken an interest in US history for the relatively tiny part of it that we’ve been adults. While we have spent a lot of time over the last decade trying to fill the canyon-sized world history gaps in our brains since then, maybe too much of it has been filled from mainstream news reports, asides on The Daily Show, or the bits we’ve been able to understand when talking to people who know more about these things than us (we generally nod, and try to turn the conversation around to football or Seinfeld).

It’s this that makes The Power Of Nightmares all the more engrossing for us. If we point out that Curtis, aided by his stellar ability to find the footage to illustrate each point perfectly, helps dimbulbs like us understand much of what has really been going on, it might make us sound like the kind of people ready to fall for any crackpot theory (like the guy at the local car boot sale with a stall of conspiracy theory DVDs). He really does go beyond that, looking at each event from both sides, questioning the people who really did hold power at the time, and never straightforwardly saying Group A is right, or that Group B is wrong, at least not without overwhelming evidence to back it up.

While The Power Of Nightmares hasn’t been able to question everyone directly involved in the story (after all, Donald Rumsfeld isn’t the type to be questioned like that, and Osama bin Laden probably wasn’t returning his calls), there are a number of illuminating interviewees. For example, Irving Kristol, the founder of the Neoconservative movement speaks openly on why he feels Christianity is the central tenet of his ideology, and why it was so important to get Christian fundamentalists back into the polling booths. Hard to believe now, but until that point the religious right in the USA largely abstained from voting, having felt that the US Government in general was corrupt. The Neo-con movement pandered to them from the late 1970s onwards, and it was with their support that Reagan swept to power for two terms. Similarly, Curtis speaks to people as diverse as Abdullah Anas, General Commander of Afghan Arabs in the 1980s, to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Neo-cons didn’t have everything their own way. There was a belief within the movement that all global terrorism was being orchestrated by a hidden network, controlled by the Soviet Union. The CIA refused to buy into this, because they’d made up that whole thing in the first place, but after repeated badgering, Reagan finally bought into the Neo-con theory, and used covert operations around the world to fight terrorism (well, apart from in Northern Ireland). After this success in shaping policy, the Neo-cons started to believe their own propaganda more and more, setting out to transform the world as they wanted, even convincing the Reagan administration into teaming up with the Islamists in order to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets.


However, it’s not all one-sided. The programme also tells how bin Laden and his cohorts also bend the truth in order to maximise the impact of his deeds, hiring gun-toting renegades by the day in order to be seen surrounding him in propaganda videos, and how media outlets around the world inflating the threat of Al Qaeda actually helps him to portray the image of himself as the head of a huge multi-national terrorist organisation, as opposed to the ragbag of loosely affiliated, much smaller terror cells around certain troublespots of the world.

We’re not going to carry on spelling out what happens in the programme here, so instead we’ll state how great it was to see a documentary series of this magnitude going out on the BBC. While one could ordinarily expect a documentary series on a matter of global importance to be sold to broadcasters around the Anglophone world, few broadcasters took the risk here, such was the hottedness of Curtis’ factual potato. Curtis has remarked that while the heads of several US networks admired the show, one such boss (his name kept secret by Curtis) remarked that “we would get slaughtered if we put this out”. Even in more liberal Canada, a CBC broadcast of the series was first postponed, then only aired alongside a contrasting account from Peter Taylor, The New Al-Qaeda, as a counter-argument.

With so many broad proclamations contained within the documentary series, there are moments where Curtis tempted fate a little too much. Towards the end of the third and final episode, Curtis proclaims that (at the time) of the 664 people arrested in the UK under the Prevention of Terrorism Act since 2001, not a single one had been convicted of trying to carry out a terrorist act. Fair enough, you might say, but he then underlines his point (after a few examples of people being arrested on laughably tenuous grounds) by dismissing the prospect of a terror attack being carried out on the London Underground as “a fantasy which swept through the media”. Possibly true at the time, but events less than twelve months later would prove to undermine the idea of this merely being a press-invented fantasy. However, that does little to dilute one of the main points of the documentary, that the threat of Al Qaeda as a tightly controlled organisation was overstated by people with a lot to gain from that fact, including those hoping to exploit disaffected Muslim youth already living in target nations.

One additional thing strikes us about The Power Of Nightmares (and indeed, the modern work of Adam Curtis as a whole) – it commendably kept well clear of the more sensationalist style of documentary making becoming increasingly popular in the US. Where Michael Moore would have used a rock soundtrack and appeared in as many shots as possible trying to look sympathetic before blaming everything on George W Bush (not to mention the part in Sicko where he spends five minutes telling everyone how great he is for paying the healthcare bills of someone who hates him), Curtis keeps his involvement to the voiceover. At only a few points through the entire series can Curtis be heard directly questioning interviewees, in favour of simply letting their replies speak for themselves, and he doesn’t appear on camera at any point. His tone throughout is never bombastic – everything is delivered in a matter-of-factly comforting tone.

In an age where you can find documentaries supporting pretty much any viewpoint you’d like to believe (as a glance at old Tinfoilhat McConspiracyvideo’s stall at the car boot sale will prove, providing Black Ops haven’t grabbed him), Adam Curtis has continued to show that if you want any great number of people to pay attention to what you’re saying, you really have to show your workings. You have to speak to the right people (people who were certifiably present at the events in question, as opposed to self-appointed ‘truthers’), to put yourself across clearly, and to let the facts speak for themselves. And while it could be argued that the politics of fear have taken the back seat to The Great Depression II, a fleeting glimpse at Fox News’ treatment of Barack Obama confirms that even now, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

WATCH IT NOW ON: As we’d mentioned, the full series is now in the public domain, which means you can legally download and watch it in full from With the programme never broadcast in the USA, it’s splendid to see that the site also offers a download of an entire .iso DVD of the series, in NTSC format, which will also play on all but the very tackiest UK DVD players. Hugely commendable, and something we wish more documentary makers would consider.


3 .:

Simon said...

Although didn't Curtis once say that the London bombings and findings thereafter punctured a hole in a large part of his central analysis?

Mark X said...

Ah, the folly of clicking 'publish' because I needed to go out for the evening after rewatching 2h40 of a 3 hour series. Yes, on getting home I watched the last twenty minutes of the last ep, and noticed the section on potential British terror attacks. I really don't think his comments on it undermine his arguments *too* much, even if they do seem to be tempting fate a little too much. I've now amended the blog update to reflect on this.

M said...

It's the bit where Margaret Thatcher's appearance onscreen is soundtracked with the theme from Assault on Precinct 13 that sticks with me.
(Was that Power of Nightmares? Might have been one of his other series)

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