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2014 Outstanding Achievement Award: Adam Curtis

“Have you thought about seeing the world like this?”

Over the last 30 years, one man has been marching to the rhythm of his own drum, making films that intentionally challenge the status quo, cause intense debate and have created a loyal following. Adam Curtis considers himself a journalist, but the documentary world insists on seeing him as one of our own, perhaps because we know a good thing when we see it.

There is no other filmmaker who works in the way Curtis does and he is the closest we may ever have to a Stanley Kubrick. He operates from within the public broadcasting system of the BBC, but has managed to create a body of work completely on his own terms.

Renowned for his distinct style of using archive and music to create rich audio and visual backdrops for his own voiceovers, which guide us through his films, Curtis has found detractors in the documentary community. There are those vehemently against the “artificiality” of using music to create a tone, and those who level criticisms that voiceover “mediates” reality. But to watch Curtis’ work, you realize that when the do’s and don’ts of technique come into play with an art form there’s always an exception to the rule. Not only is Curtis happy to challenge any rules set upon how one tells a story, he avoids paying attention to the views around them. There are far greater matters at hand. You have to commend him for this. Trying to force an ideology or system onto a filmmaker obsessed with exploring and dissecting those very things is an odd thing to attempt.

Curtis makes films that are near impossible to distribute in conventional ways. He isn’t looking for theatrical release or his name in lights but is more focused on trying to get ideas out into our culture. In doing so, he has created a framework in which he can exist within a system that in theory shouldn’t get what he’s doing, but does.

He has stated that he prefers for his films to be available online for free so they can create greater discussion. He defies conventional ideas by being innovative while working within a traditional system. And while referring to the past, he’s very much at the forefront of exploring innovative ways of telling stories. His films are all at once historical, journalistic, experimental, artful and investigative, and are fundamentally good stories designed to provoke and inspire thought. He puts forth ideas and concepts and gives us his version of how things came to be and then leaves it up to us to decide what we think.

All of this makes it extremely difficult to summarize any one of Curtis’ films into a bite-sized description. Within his series’, every episode explores a multitude of ideas and takes numerous pathways to investigate the connections and stories he’s putting across. It’s why I urge anyone unfamiliar with his work, or who finds we’re showing a film they have yet to see, to come and watch the five films we’re featuring at the Festival.

A slightly easier approach when looking at the breadth of Curtis’ work would be to talk about the themes within. To explore the films of Adam Curtis, especially in any kind of concentrated way, leaves your head spinning in that wonderful way when you’ve been so intellectually stimulated that you can feel your brain racing to process the information it’s just been presented with. His films have focused on subjects ranging from the systems of economics, politics and power, to computers, nature, and of thought and response.

The multi-award-winning Power of Nightmares caused a huge stir when it was broadcast and was seen as hugely controversial by politicians and journalists. But when the BBC conducted focus groups to gauge audience reaction, the main response was, “He was just saying what we thought.” Showing that, while Curtis may be prone to challenging those in power, from presidents to journalists, he is extremely astute when it comes to his audience of which he retains an extremely high regard for.

In more recent year Curtis has been experimenting with different methods of showing people his work, both in storytelling and also in medium. His BBC blog has become a place for him to explore ideas, often relating to current events, in both long and short form. In it he has created an almost real-time version of his films by which his commentary and reflection on the world becomes instantly relevant. It’s a welcome perspective, as evidenced by the blog consistently being ranked one of the BBC’s most successful.

Curtis has also created two live events, It Felt Like a Kiss and Everything Is Going According to Plan. The former was designed to let people know what it feels like to live through something, combining analysis and emotion to create a larger interaction and experience.

Curtis rejects the notion that there are no alternatives to the ideologies of our time and his investigations and explorations lead to a body of work that’s ultimately wholly optimistic. Setting emotional force of character against an historical backdrop, he creates films that stimulate the viewer both emotionally and intellectually in the absolute way the best stories should. In doing so he challenges us all to take a second look at the world around us and see if we can’t make it better.

— Charlotte Cook
Director of Programming

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