There are few enough people making coherent, provocative, aesthetically persuasive political documentaries. In fact Adam Curtis might be the only one. Now he’s got a blog, so you can keep up with him in the too-long intervals between films.
This one felt a little looser and less urgent than the first two: maybe the madness of Fox News is too astonishing on its own to leave room for the sharp analysis Brooker built up around citizen journalism and rolling news. Even so, Brooker gives the smartest take on how the news is put together and consumed, and this week the end-of-the-half-hour highlight was an Adam Curtis short film.
It reprises several themes from Curtis’ previous documentaries about the problems inherent in using television journalism as a way of interpreting the world. Audiences and journalists have deserted the disection of complex political and social issues because that’s, well, a bit dull – and embraced instead an emotive interpretation, championing innocent and heroic individuals in the face of monolithic and impersonal ‘systems’. By Curtis’s reckoning, this trope was born in the 1960s counterculture, came of age in the 80s with Live Aid, flourished in the 90s as a replacement for the east-vs-west certainties of the Cold War, and then foundered painfully on the complexities of the Rwandan genocide:
This simple battle between good and evil couldn’t last. But it finally cracked back where is first began, in Africa. In 1994 the Hutus massacred millions of Tutsis in Rwanda. In the wake of the massacre, millions of refugees flooded into the Cogo. Western aid workers and television crews also flooded in, to help the ‘innocent’ victims. But they soon discovered that many of them weren’t innocent at all – they were the ‘evil’ Hutus who killed millions of the Tutsis.
Then, the Tutsis invaded the camps to get their revenge. But instead of behaving like good victims, they too carried out terrible massacres, and a horrific war began in which four-and-a-half million people died, and everyone was evil – even the children.
And that had a terrible effect on television news. Because when there weren’t any good or innocent people to support any longer, the kind of news reporting invented in the 90s made no sense. Because the news had given up reporting them as political struggles, it meant there was now no way to understand why these terrible events were happening, and instead, political conflicts around the world – from Darfur to Gaza – were now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing could be done and to which the only response is to say, “oh dear”.
Obviously, this is a rangy thesis to carry off in six-and-a-bit minutes. Curtis manages it because, well, he’s Adam Curtis and no one turns out a well-constructed video essay like he does – and because the broad generalisation feels broadly right. Political causes that can’t be explained with three brightly coloured arrows don’t make it onto the television, and the consequently rootless portrayal of struggle and suffering doesn’t inspire any sense that systems can be altered or lives saved: what’s left is a grisly parade of disasters and no idea of what to do about them.