ADAM CURTIS: The BBC Q + A session – at Sheff Doc Fest

IN THE BELLY OF the spectacular Lyceum Theatre, just a few paces away from Sheffield train station, Adam Curtis and Janice Hadlow began a conversation – and a thoroughly challenging debate for both parties (which is how it should be: when you feel that little bit of awkwardness and wonder if they are genuinely arguing) – that everybody wishes they had surreptitiously recorded.

I sat right at the front, as if osmosis of genius would occur. Needless to say it didn’t, but at least this piece got written about it…

Janice introduced the Q&A session. “A narrative of bold proposition…starling, sometimes controversial,” she read, as Adam Curtis looked rather composed, quietly gathering his thoughts and probably trying not to appear nervous when faced with half a bunch of media wannabes, and half a bunch of media wannabes (self included.)

On the initial inspiration behind his unique cut-contrast-fuse-cut-even-more! style of edit and direction for journalistic films, Curtis remarked that it wasn’t entirely deliberate. I’m not sure if that’s genius, or disappointing.

“I just started playing around,” Adam said. “It was merely a way out…”

…of the cutting room. Indeed, the blush-evoking topic for Curtis was timing. Specifically: how long it takes for him to write and direct a new documentary for the BBC. (Read: years. It takes years.) He was incredibly bashful about it all, glowing red when Janice mentioned it. “Let’s not go there!” he exclaimed.

It was quite a sweet and extremely rare moment – for us as the audience –  of Curtis to be so honest. Or at least, as an audience of the documentary, we perhaps always expect a level of authority that surely must transmute from the director.

Suggesting Mr Curtis to work with haste is clearly not a great idea, lest we lose the nuance threaded into each film.

Anyway. For a cerebral sprint that felt like twenty minutes (but was actually an hour and a half), Adam Curtis gave a packed-out audience a rare insight into for what, how and why he is motivated to create films.

We were shown a clip of Pandora’s Box before he was grilled further by Janice Hadlow on the muses behind the series. “It was born out of desperation – as a lot of television is.” Interestingly enough, the need to tell a story was not necessarily born, for Curtis, out of a need to match his peers (this is arguably a trait of many filmmakers pushed in an environment where fast turnover and prestige become tantamount in importance.)

“Everything I’ve got, I’ve got from novels,” he said. “Documentaries are often very boring, very general.” Janice as chair of the discussion asked about technique; Curtis as an artist. He breezily replied that he does, in fact, take on elements from “trash telly. And [then I] bolt it onto posh pretentious stuff.” Oops. See, most documentary-makers probably aren’t the biggest fans of Curtis. I’d imagine so anyway – he has a strong opinion on filmmaking without any of the usual classical training – NYU Film School, NFTS and so on. Furthermore as a BBC journalist, he certainly isn’t neutral himself. He is both the narrator and the director when traditionally, the two roles are separate, perhaps radically challenging even more that binary idea of art and artist.

When the Q&A session was opened up to the floor, he was invited to comment on his ‘Britishness’ in terms of the tone used in the shaping of voice and presentation of his documentaries. For example, the choice in soundtrack and edits are (in his own view) more ‘American-styled’. 

But if there was one thing that I personally wanted to ask Curtis – which was covered easily by pre-set questions in the BBC Q&A – was the Charlie Brooker link. Surprisingly, this sparked a whole new theme in the discussion: the next stage of the media industry.

For Curtis, one of his peers is seemingly, too, one of his heroes. Brooker is a stalwart of the Guardian who began his writing career in video games and TV reviewing, before moving onto pithy opinion writing, his sharp, clever, critical (but always with a heart) articles have won him hundreds of thousands of readers across the world. Curtis allowed the mention of Charlie Brooker as a springboard for this: “The New Journalism.”

“The missing link these days is between what we feel, and big world events… Charlie Brooker: he reports himself and his reaction to things,” said Adam Curtis.

Yet if there was one recurring theme throughout his enviously articulate stream of consciousness, it was the idea of “The Rat of Individualism”. Not, like, this sneaky mischievous ideas Rat who has crowned himself the King of the ideological concept itself… but rather, the ruling ideology that keeps us trapped in our habits – and to a greater extent, I guess, our machines, our computers, our Twitter accounts.

This is a theme that Curtis hits on a lot in his documentaries, and especially his latest series, All Watched over By Machines of Loving Grace.

From a session that was meant to allow us all a window into the vision of a great documentary maker, the audience instead found that best of all, Curtis is still a great teacher. And rather honest, too: a reviver of sociology and a fearless explicator of the power structures which he understands are the driving forces behind our lives and often, our thoughts and feelings. Curtis explored this in depth in his second series, The Century of the Self.

“There are powerful forces, powerful interest groups – not conspiracies,” he said.

These are surely the words of someone who is a journalist at heart. But not once did he refer to himself as one. Or as an artist, or a director, or even a filmmaker.

Perhaps a lot of the mystery that belies the enigma of Adam Curtis is that none of us know ‘what’ he is. He just happens to be many things: a director, filmmaker and journalist. Or maybe – just maybe, someone who is telling a story. 

From Sheff Doc Fest 2010: Adam Curtis meets Janice Hadlow (Controller of BBC One)

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