This Incendiary BBC Documentary Reveals the Origins of Trump’s Mindfuck Politics

Trump transformed politics into a dizzying form of theater. BBC's 'HyperNormalisation' investigates how we got there

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Filmmaker Adam Curtis’ new documentary, HyperNormalisation, first aired in in the UK less than a month before Donald Trump’s election. Curtis couldn’t have known that Trump would win – but his exploration of the nefarious forces behind Trump’s success is so prescient that President Trump seems like a foregone conclusion by the time the credits roll.

HyperNormalisation begins with the premise that most of us live in a ‘fake world’ – one in which Facebook feeds us stories it knows we already agree with, politicians lie and distort reality to gain power, and corporations control everything. The film sets out to explain how we got here.

Curtis is a BBC documentarian whose primary subject is power. The dominant theme of HyperNormalisation is how global rulers use “perception management” to gain and keep power. The Reagan administration’s blurring of fact and fiction in its portrayal of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was an example of perception management, Curtis says. So was George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s insistence on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a story they used to achieve their goals and manage their own reputations. The theme of perception management is also cleverly illustrated by clips of films about mind control. Footage from the climax of Brian DePalma’s Carrie – during which the protagonist uses psychokinetic powers to control the physical world – illustrates the concept of a malleable reality.

All of this makes for a thoroughly provocative viewing experience. One of HyperNormalisation’s most challenging segments occurs when Curtis suggests that a generation of artists abandoned meaningful political action by choosing art over activism while the world crumbled around them. Patti Smith is shown cooing about graffiti in a crumbling New York City landscape. The film asks whether art can create real change in the face of corruption. It’s a provocative question – but Curtis fails to acknowledge the myriad ways in which Smith and a generation of New York artists did change the world by inventing punk rock, returning a cultural focus to the underground, and giving a voice to the voiceless.

HyperNormalisation‘s story dances nimbly around the globe, from Syria, the United States, Russia and beyond. During his segments on Russia, Curtis reveals the influence of politician Vladislav Surkov, portrayed as something of a puppetmaster behind Vladimir Putin. While serving in Putin’s administration, Curtis says, “Surkov turned Russian politics into a kind of bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater.” Sound familiar? Surkov and Putin are said to have used theater, confusion and deception to undermine the very meaning of truth and journalism. HyperNormalisation details the idea that Surkov and Putin wrote the playbook that Donald Trump and Steve Bannon ultimately used to win the 2016 election.

One hallmark of Curtis’ films is a menacing air of conspiracy reinforced by an eerie, discordant score. In HyperNormalisation’s most conspiratorial segment, Curtis asserts that the United States government manufactured evidence of alien cover-ups like those in Roswell, New Mexico. The government’s goal, Curtis says, was to conceal testing of experimental military weapons by convincing American citizens that sightings of unidentified flying objects were spacecraft from another planet. The theory proposes a conspiracy within a conspiracy. When viewed as journalism, this segment will likely prove too far-fetched for many viewers. When viewed as art, it is the work of a incendiary filmmaker who excels at questioning reality: how much of what we perceive is real?

Ironically, Adam Curtis likes to think of himself as a journalist rather than a filmmaker or artist. On the contrary, HyperNormalisation is best viewed as a work of art – and a spellbinding and astounding work of art at that.

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