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Understand Donald Trump With These 5 BBC Documentaries by Adam Curtis

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So, it’s over. Trump has won. In times of escalating WTFness, as people, we turn to books, documentaries and online articles in a desperate bid to understand what the Hell is going on. When faced with a president who has proudly and brazenly positioned himself as post-truth, education becomes a much needed island of refuge amidst an ocean of misinformation and outright lies.

adam curtis, hypernormalisation, the power of nightmares, it felt like a kiss, donald trump

Adam Curtis (Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

British documentary maker Adam Curtis tells stories about this erosion of truth and how no-one (not even the political elites) now knows what the Hell is going on. He charts the death of idealism in politics, telling the story of how neoconservatives and neoliberals gave up on trying to direct society via Big Ideas and handed over the reins to market forces. He explains how a demagogue like Trump could rise out of this.

Even if you don’t agree with Curtis, his use of bizarre archival clips dredged out from the BBC’s archives and his intoxicatingly hypnotic editing patterns will have you transfixed. And if you get lost amongst the deluge you can always watch in one browser window while scouring Wikipedia in another.

Adam Curtis is the best conspiracy theorist with a stereotypically English accent currently making documentaries and here are 5 of his best:

1. The Century of the Self (2002)

What’s it about?

This is the earliest Curtis documentary on the list and is one of his most cohesive and convincing. This is due to its relatively narrow focus. This short 4-episode series examines how advertisers learned to use the ideas of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to manufacture desire for their products amongst the public. (Think of cars being marketed as big, thrumming penis-extenders for men who are anxious about the size of what’s down their pants).

Politicians then used the techniques that the advertisers had learned in order to manufacture consent within the voting public: Telling people what they want to vote for and then making them think that these desires come from deep within them, rather than having been put into their heads by the politicians.

How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency

The Century of the Self shows why Trump’s use of simple brand-like slogans was effective enough for him to win the election. Like the most shameless of advertisers, he tapped into deep reservoirs of feeling within the American populace and then gave a name to these feelings as though his simple, hateful solutions had always already been on the tip-of-the-tongue of his supporters.

A white man in a declining Rust Belt community is unhappy because he has lost his job. He feels alienated from his neighbors because some of them don’t speak English as their first language and he’s never been given the resources to learn Spanish, not least because of his undiagnosed dyslexia that his underfunded school would never have detected because his teachers assumed he was just poor white trash and thus stupid.

Tell that man that not only are his feelings legitimate, but also draw unsubstantiated connections between them. No wonder the coal mine where he worked closed down now that the neighbourhood isn’t as white as it used to be! The government isn’t to blame for the community falling into economic deprivation, it’s the immigrants’ fault! It doesn’t matter if the argument doesn’t make any logical sense, just as long as it makes emotional sense.

It is through using the sub-conscious exploiting techniques of advertising spiel that a white farmer from Arkansas can be tricked into thinking that a bloviating orange-faced billionaire is speaking his language.

2. The Power of Nightmares (2004)

What’s it about?

This is the magisterial documentary for which Adam Curtis is known. It chillingly draws parallels between the rise of neoconservatism in the West and the rise of radical Islam in the East. Both groups, though enemies in name, are strikingly similar in ideals.

The late American satirist Kurt Vonnegut once called the Bush administration a bunch of “C grade history students”. The Power of Nightmares shows how useful it has been for the American government to selectively forget its own past. Osama bin Laden — whose death was celebrated with street parties across America — was in the 1980s an ally of the Reagan administration in fighting the spread of Communism in Afghanistan.

How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency

Donald Trump has claimed that he will “bomb the shit out of ISIS” as American president. In Trump’s August speech “Understanding The Threat: Radical Islam And The Age Of Terror,” Trump’s speechwriters lay blame for the rise of ISIS wholly upon the shoulders of the Obama-Clinton administration, claiming that it “all began in 2009 with what has become known as President Obama’s global ‘Apology Tour.’” They don’t look back to Reagan. They don’t even look as far back as George W. Bush.

Instead, ISIS are depicted as an unthinking embodiment of Evil. For Trump, there is no legitimate critique to be made of America’s foreign policy under Reagan. Trump re-establishes the mythic narrative of America as a force for Good and democratic freedom. Curtis complicates this narrative and shows how it has been used by American politicians (and clearly is continued to be used) to rally the forces of vote-eligible whites against a common enemy, even while this enemy is often half-fabricated, far less alien in its ideology than one might expect, and has even historically been supported (with money and guns!) by the American establishment itself.

3. It Felt Like a Kiss (2009)

What’s it about?

It Felt Like a Kiss is a hypnagogic fever-dream of Cold War paranoia. The film was designed to be screened as the opening section of a piece of interactive art, developed with the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. Audience members were taken up to the sixth floor of a disused office block to watch the film and were then left to explore mocked-up television studios, CIA interrogation chambers, and the living rooms of 1970s American suburbia, at the end of which they were chased to the exit by a man wielding a chainsaw.

The film itself is less a traditional documentary as it is a tone poem that uses many of the visual elements of a documentary. Archival footage of a blank-eyed, confessional Vietnam vet is spliced alongside a long camera track across men and women thrashing their legs and arms and moaning as they undergo primal scream therapy.

There is a messily eclectic smorgasbord of historical events and figures covered, but this isn’t really a documentary you should go into hoping to learn facts in any tradition sense from. It plunges into the collective subconscious of the Cold War, communicating at the level of the viewer’s gut and reptilian brain.

The editing feels almost physical in the way it bombards you with gestures and explosions — rockets fired; dancers swirling; doors opening; mouths screaming. Do you want to find out the connection between Charles Manson and The Beach Boys? How the CIA used a conch shell to try to blow up Fidel Castro? Who Rock Hudson dated to hide his homosexuality? If so, then It Felt Like a Kiss is your perfect late-night viewing.

How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency

The election of Donald Trump has felt to many like an implausible nightmare governed more by some kind of primal dream logic than any kind of logic system of cause-and-effect. This is not least due to having spent the last six months flooded by a deluge of incoherent buzz-phrases that have beared closer resemblance to grotesque internet memes (“Build the wall!” “Grab her by the pussy!” “Lock her up!” “Pepe!”) than traditional political rhetoric. Trump’s campaign speeches were so devoid of reason (and often grammar) that they ended up sounding like Surrealist automatic writing generated by a racist and misogynist chatterbot.

While the other documentaries on this list will help you better understand the hidden systems behind Trump’s ascendency, It Felt Like a Kiss perfectly captures the bug-eyed phantasmagoria of the political moment. It leaves you reeling and choking back a little bit of vomit. Just like Trump himself.

4. Bitter Lake (2015)

What’s it about?

Last year saw Curtis return to long-form documentary filmmaking after a brief hiatus with the mournful and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful Bitter Lake. The film is about the West’s complicated relationship with Afghanistan over the last decade. It shows that sometimes Western governments have entered Afghanistan due to opportunistic, even coldly mercenary reasons (the control of oil) and other times have intervened in the country’s political situation due to (often misguided) idealism. Afghanistan emerges from the documentary as a hugely complex and culturally diverse country, the image of which has been warped and simplified through history in order to suit the West’s political aims and ideals.

Like It Felt Like a Kiss, the experience of watching Bitter Lake can be gruelling at times. I sometimes take issue with the very liberal use of footage of real death in Curtis’ recent films. Sometimes an image should be respected as more than an image. Or at least, it should not be set to a wryly ironic music choice.

However, it is worth remembering that the majority of Curtis’ images are taken from newsreel footage and that his use of these images is no more calculated or exploitative than the supposedly “objective” purposes for which these images were originally produced.

How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency

Although Trump is an avowedly isolationist president, it is clear that the West’s involvement with Afghanistan is far from over. Most importantly, Bitter Lake lets the viewer see how radically the different branches of Islam differ from one another. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it would be unusual for a Southern Baptist preacher to share many spiritual or political views with a Quaker in Islington.

However, in the face of Trump’s hateful, broad-stroke rhetoric about Muslims and the already reported incidents of hijabs being ripped from women’s heads amongst other inexcusable hate crimes, it is imperative to remember that Islam is an incredibly rich and varied religion and that Muslims are not all somehow magically interchangeable.

Furthermore, if Trump decides to join forces with Putin in the Middle East, Bitter Lake will provide you with some of the historical context you need to make sense of the resulting clusterfuck. Here’s hoping there’ll still be enough of us around to watch it.

5. HyperNormalisation (2016)

What’s it about?

Curtis’ most recent documentary, released just weeks ago, was criticised in some quarters for focusing on Brexit and Trump rather than on what was assumed to be the coming presidency of Hillary Clinton. “Why talk about some fringe aberration rather than the real continuing story of neoliberalism?” was the (paraphrased) question asked by these reviewers.

Sadly, Curtis was correct to place his focus where he did. HyperNormalisation charts the rise of post-truth politics, examining how politicians like Trump have retreated from the complexity of the real world and replaced it with a fake simulation in which what matters is not whether the story is true, but how bombastically it is told.

The documentary argues that we, the voting public, have been complicit in this through living within the echo chambers of the internet. Surrounding ourselves with friends who share the same opinions as ourselves, receiving advertisements on our Facebook feeds and in our Google search results for products that we were already interested in buying, and ultimately news stories that agree with our established beliefs.

The film is slightly longer than Bitter Lake at two-and-three-quarter hours but is made more manageable by its being edited into nine distinct “chapters” with titles such as “The Human Bomb,” “Acid Flashback,” and “The Truth is Out There.” Curtis misses a trick or two in not linking the cyber-utopianism of web pioneer Perry Barlow with the rise of the libertarian alt-right and Anonymous, especially since we now know that WikiLeaks were partially responsible for Trump’s election. But to be fair, he should be excused for not covering some ground as HyperNormalisation is already a very expansive documentary!

How it will help you understand Trump’s presidency

HyperNormalisation is the only Adam Curtis documentary thus far to explicitly talk about Donald Trump. Curtis focuses on how Trump bought property in New York following the city’s bankruptcy crisis in 1975. It reminds us that Trump’s fortunes have often plummeted since then. It also shows us how successfully Trump has been able to maintain his image as a successful businessman in spite of these professional disasters.

Trump has largely succeeded in this through lying (or — perhaps more accurately — refusing to accept that truth matters).

Donald Trump says that climate change is a hoax. Experts devise graphs and charts to show that this is not true. Trump says that climate change is a hoax. The MET office and NASA release data proving that the average global temperature has risen above 1.5 degrees Celsius. Trump says that climate change is a hoax. Sea levels rise and Miami is lost underwater. Trump says that climate change is a hoax.

And it’s not so much that people start to believe him — it’s that they give up caring about the truth because, after all, how much of what you read — even this article! — is a bunch of lies anyway? When you don’t know if you’re being bullshitted, you might as well just go with the best bullshitter. And Trump, for all his faults, is the best bullshitter. Though Curtis may come close. After all, it’s all just stories.


These five Adam Curtis documentaries will definitely help you understand the Trump presidency. But don’t watch them all at once! It’s important not to binge on all this horror. Go outside for a walk. Have sex with your partner/s. Watch RuPaul. Eat some kale.

Due, I suspect, to the sheer amount of archival footage Curtis uses and the educational nature of what he is attempting to do, his documentaries are readily available on Youtube and Vimeo and are seemingly never removed by either the BBC or Curtis himself. If you’re in the UK and want to watch them legitimately, some of his work is available on BBC iPlayer.

And if after watching, you think that white, British “Voice of Authority”™ Adam Curtis needs taking down a peg or two, don’t forget to watch Ben Woodham’s hilarious Curtis doc parody “The Loving Trap of Pandora’s Nightmares”:

(Featured image by Steve Rhodes/Flickr)