British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis is scheduled to speak about western perceptions of the Arab world at the launch of the BBC Arabic Film Festival in London on Friday.
Curtis uses his films to discuss the cultural and political subconscious of the world through a mix of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.
A recent New York Times profile on the 61-year-old British BBC journalist described his films, which include Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation, as “hypnotically watchable, hilarious and ominous films”.
Curtis has a knack for making the audience rethink the everyday political and social narratives and question whether the news is wrong – perhaps, he believes if we scratch between the surface, there could be an another story.
He has been adept at highlighting the hypocritical approach of the British and United States governments in the Middle East and their quasi-colonial military adventures, and it is no surprise that Curtis has been asked to give the keynote speech at the BBC Arabic Film Festival.
“A lot of the films that I have made in the last few years have touched upon this,” admits Curtis. “We tend to project onto the Middle East our own fears and anxieties, and in the process we simplify those societies.”
This idea will form the basis of his talk at the festival. “At the BBC, sitting in our archives, is all sorts of reporting on the Arab world over the past 50 or 60 years,” he says. “So something like the Arabic Film Festival, where the main job is to show Arab filmmaking, seems quite a good place to bring some of this footage out and show it to what is essentially a mixed audience, tell a story about what I think it is about and have a debate about it.”
He says the often ill-informed reporting has come about due to the fact that there is a tendency to oversimplify things – and when you look at the reporting of the Middle East – it highlights the inner fears and insecurities the British and the West have about themselves. As a result, the reports miss out on the real complexities and realities of the region.
The story he is going to tell concerns the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. “In the end I thought what sums it up is the whole story between Qaddafi and the West, because it is a fascinating story and has so many twists and turns.
“By creating Qaddafi as this simplified monster, we simplified the Arab world and it became a template for how the West treated the sort of Saddams that followed. It was the idea that the Arab world was lots of innocent people dominated by these evil monsters, and if we got rid of these evil monsters everything would be OK.”
The recent history of North African regime overthrows, such as the one in Libya, has shown the error of this view. Also, adds Curtis, the attitude of the West to Qaddafi changed depending on which way the wind was blowing.
He went from being a demon to being made out to be a wonderful figure by British prime minister Tony Blair, and then back to being a demon again.
But as is his style, Curtis turns the Qaddafi story on its head. “Ultimately, it’s quite funny as well, the thing about Qaddafi is that he knew full well that the West was inventing him but, because he was so desperate for attention, he went along with it and said: ‘I can do that’.”
In his film HyperNormalisation, Curtis questions whether the commonly held view that Qaddafi was involved in the 1998 bombing of a passenger jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, is in fact true.
“I want to go back to it,” says Curtis. “Because I think it’s really important. At the beginning and probably accurately, intelligence agencies blamed Syria, or Syria as a proxy agent, saying that they were looking to retaliate for the Americans having shot down an Iranian airliner [Iran Air Flight 655] over the Gulf in 1988. That was what everyone said for a year, and then suddenly the first Gulf War came along and when they need president Assad senior as an ally, suddenly they switch to Qaddafi.”
It is the way that Curtis challenges orthodox thinking that makes his films so startling. Whether any of the Arab filmmakers showing films at this week’s festival can follow in his footsteps, is the next big question.
• BBC Arabic Film Festival runs from March 24 to 30 in London